By JENNIFER LEWINGTON
URBAN AFFAIRS REPORTER; With a report from Ingrid Peritz
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
Four major urban regions now soak up half of Canada's population, a gathering concentration of people power that could redefine the country.
In 2001, about 15.3 million people -- or 51 per cent of Canadians -- lived in southern Ontario's Golden Horseshoe around Toronto, Montreal and environs, Vancouver and B.C.'s Lower Mainland and the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, according to census data released yesterday by Statistics Canada.
The four regions accounted for 49 per cent of Canada's population in the 1996 census, compared to 41 per cent in 1971.
Moreover, in 2001, these four regions grew faster than the country as a whole, with a jump in population of 7.6 per cent between 2001 and 1996 compared to a gain of only 0.5 per cent for the rest of the country over the same period.
As magnets for people, jobs and services, the big four are beginning to look more like each other than the rest of the country. Generally speaking, immigration and within-Canada migration are far more significant in the four regions than in the country at large.
"Those regions are detaching themselves from Canada -- not politically or economically, but demographically," said Dan Hiebert, an assistant professor of geography at the University of British Columbia who analyzes immigration trends.
Increasingly, the four regions are more ethnically diverse than the rest of the country.
He added that the data pose some basic questions about how the country sees itself in future.
Some will argue that Canada needs a few big-city regions to be competitive in the world, he said, while others will view the imbalance of population as a problem.
"It is equally legitimate for governments to say, 'Let's embrace it and develop four world-class regions and make sure we are globally competitive,' " he said. "But it is also completely legitimate to say, 'We are a society with a reservoir of feeling and fair play, and we have to guard against it [the urbanization trend].' "
In the extended Golden Horseshoe, which radiates out from Toronto to include Oshawa, Hamilton, St. Catharines-Niagara, Kitchener, Guelph and Barrie, the population in 2001 was 6.7 million, up from 6.1 million in 1996.
Moreover, the region accounts for 59 per cent of the population in Ontario -- and 22 per cent in the country.
"We call it the Golden Horseshoe, but I think it's turned into the Golden Horse," said Mike Sheridan, Statistics Canada's assistant chief statistician.
In the Vancouver and Lower Mainland Region, the population grew 7.3 per cent to slightly more than 2.7 million in 2001, and now accounts for 69 per cent of British Columbia.
In contrast to Vancouver and Toronto, where immigration is the key reason for growth, the Calgary-Edmonton corridor turned in the largest growth of the four regions: up 12.3 per cent in 2001 over 1996 to 2.1 million.
Montreal's growth is not as robust as the other three big regions, but it is strong by historical standards. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Montreal's population mainly shrank. For this census, the Montreal region (including Sorel and Lachute) grew 2.8 per cent over 1996 to more than 3.7 million people. The Island of Montreal, now part of the amalgamated city, grew by 2.1 per cent to mark its strongest increase in at least 30 years.
"When we saw the figures, we said, 'Wow,' " said Réal Lortie, a demographer with Statistics Canada in Montreal. "This is a reversal. After all the decreases, we now have an increase."
Yesterday's census is only the first glimpse at the changing face of Canada. Detailed numbers on the impact of immigration, for example, will not be known until new data are released early next year.