February 23, 2022

2021 Census population trends

On February 9th, Statistics Canada issued the first results from its 2021 census of the Canadian population. This release focuses on population and dwellings in Canada with detailed information on population by province, city, and rural community across the country.

Data from the 2021 census will be released in seven waves over the course of the year. The next issue will be on April 27th and will include detailed information on population age, sex, and type of dwelling. The Business Council of Alberta will be tracking each of these seven releases and analyzing what they say about how Alberta is changing and evolving over time.

In this Quick Read, we look at Alberta’s population—where we live, how we’re growing, and how we compare to other provinces.

Population growth in Alberta and other provinces  

The 2021 census shows that Alberta’s population grew by about 195,000 people (4.8%) over the last five years, slightly below the national average of 5.2%.

Below-average population growth is unusual for Alberta. In each of the previous two census periods, the provincial population rose by more than 10%. However, sluggish economic growth since 2016 led to a net outflow of Albertans trying their luck in other provinces, thus driving overall population growth down.

Looking across the country, PEI was the fastest-growing province over the last five years, posting an 8.0% increase in its population since 2011. In fact, all three maritime provinces had uncharacteristically strong population growth compared to recent norms. However, the fastest overall growth was in the Yukon, where the small population expanded by 12.1% in just five years.

At the other end of the spectrum, Newfoundland and Labrador (-1.8%) and the Northwest Territories (-1.7%) were the only places where the population shrank from 2016 to 2021.  

Major cities in Alberta and across Canada

Alberta is home to four “large” cities—urban regions with a population of at least 100,000 people—with Red Deer joining Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethbridge in 2021.

Using the Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) definition of a large city—which includes outlying bedroom communities—Alberta’s three largest cities all outpaced growth in the overall provincial population:

  • Calgary grew by 6.4% to reach 1.48 million;
  • Edmonton grew by 7.3% to hit 1.42 million; and
  • Lethbridge grew by 5.5% to reach 123,800 residents;

Meanwhile, the population of Red Deer increased by just 0.4% to 100,800.

In terms of how Alberta’s two largest cities stack up against Canada’s other major urban centres, Calgary fell one spot since 2016 and is now the fifth largest city in Canada. That decline was because of slower population growth here at home, combined with a strong increase in Ottawa. Edmonton remained in sixth position, slightly behind Calgary but well ahead of Quebec City. 

Of Canada’s 20 largest cities, the fastest population growth from 2016 to 2021 was in Kelowna, at 14%. Cities in southern Ontario expanded rapidly as well, as did Halifax and Oshawa.

Population growth within Alberta

Within Alberta, the fastest-growing cities and towns (at least 10,000 residents) tended to be satellite communities in and around Edmonton and Calgary. From 2016 to 2021, places like Cochrane, Airdrie, Beaumont, Leduc, and Chestermere grew by between 10% and 25%. Canmore also stood out with strong population growth, but because of the obvious selling point of its location.

The only cities in Alberta to see their population decline since 2016 were Wetaskiwin, Whitecourt, and Hinton, although a number of smaller towns did see people moving away over the last five years.

Urban and rural

Finally, Alberta’s population continues to become more concentrated in and around our major cities. A full 68% of our 4.3 million residents live in Calgary, Edmonton, or one of their surrounding communities, up from 66.7% in 2016. When Red Deer and Lethbridge are included, 73.3% of Albertans live in a larger city, up from 72.1% five years earlier.

Perhaps surprising to some, Alberta is the third most urban province in Canada. Only Ontario (85%) and BC (76%) have a larger share of their population living in or near a major city. Meanwhile, Canada’s less populous provinces—Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Atlantic Canada—have a significantly higher share of their populations living in smaller towns and communities.

The census offers policymakers a unique and detailed window into how the Canadian population is growing and evolving over time. Population growth and distribution data tell us where public services will be most needed, and alert us to future challenges like maintaining critical services to areas with a declining population. As additional census data is rolled out in the coming months, it will provide deeper insight into the challenges and opportunities we face as we work to build a better future for everyone.

Mike Holden, Vice President of Policy & Chief Economist

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