In late June, Statistics Canada released interprovincial migration data for the first quarter of 2022. Those numbers show that, for the third consecutive quarter, there was a net inflow of people moving to Alberta from elsewhere in Canada. In fact, from January to March, more Canadians moved to Alberta than to any other province. The net gain of 5,351 migrants was also the largest single-quarter net inflow into the province in almost seven years.
This is unambiguously good news for Alberta. Canadians who move to a new province tend to be younger people in their 20s and early 30s starting their careers or beginning to raise a family. An influx of young people injects Alberta with new ideas and vitality. Importantly, it increases the proportion of working-age people in the province, meaning there are more people earning wages and salaries to support those in retirement.
As important as this trend is for Alberta’s long-term prosperity and economic competitiveness, it’s not the only story emerging from Canadian inter-provincial migration data. Since COVID landed in Canada, there has been a remarkable shift in migration patterns across the country. Longstanding population movements—from east to west—have been disrupted, and new trends are emerging.
In this Quick Read, we explore those changing migration patterns, some potential reasons behind those changes, and what they could mean for Alberta.
Migration trends prior to COVID
Traditionally, Canadians move across the country in response to economic conditions. When a province is doing well, its residents tend to stay, and people from weaker economies tend to move there. The reverse is also true.
Over the last 30 years before COVID, this has meant a gradual population shift from east to west. Atlantic Canada and Quebec have historically lost residents to other provinces—usually Ontario, Alberta and BC. For its part, Ontario either attracts or loses people depending on its relative economic strength, adding up to a modest loss over 30 years. Manitoba and Saskatchewan almost always see a net outflow of people—mainly to Alberta.
Meanwhile, Alberta and BC were the only provinces to see a net inflow of Canadians from other provinces over the 1989-2019 period. That doesn’t mean it happened every year, though. From 2015 to late 2021, Alberta saw a significant net outflow of residents after oil prices crashed and the provincial economy stagnated.
Since COVID hit, this general trend has changed considerably. Instead of moving west (but skipping over Manitoba and Saskatchewan), people are vacating the middle and heading for the mountains and the coasts.
The most notable turnaround has been in Atlantic Canada. For decades, people have left the East Coast and moved west. Now, they’re moving back. For five consecutive quarters (since Q1 2021), all four Atlantic provinces have seen a net inflow of residents from other provinces. About 28,000 Canadians have moved to the region since that time. This is a remarkable turn of events for a region accustomed to a shrinking population. Now more people are moving to Atlantic Canada (as a share of its current population) than anywhere else in Canada.
The other notable trend has been a sharp increase in people leaving Ontario. Since Q1 2021, nearly 43,000 more Ontarians have left the province than have come in. While that’s still a fairly small number compared to the province’s total population, Ontario has recently lost thousands more residents each quarter than it has in decades.
Why is this happening?
Two overlapping factors likely contribute to these new trends—housing prices and growing acceptance of remote work.
Remote work has become more common since COVID, to the point that nearly one in five Canadians now work exclusively from home. And given the high living costs in Canada’s largest cities, many people choose to work from more affordable locations. Why pay Toronto housing prices when you could earn the same salary and live in Halifax?
Similarly, as Vancouver is among the most expensive places in the world to live, the populations of Kelowna, Victoria, Abbotsford and other regions of BC are growing far faster than Vancouver itself.
What does this mean for Alberta?
A booming economy and relatively affordable housing prices are already drawing more Canadians to Alberta. If the work-from-home trend persists, we could see even greater in-migration as Canadians choose to live in Alberta but work outside the province.
Alberta’s challenge is that many businesses have previously relied on migrants from Atlantic Canada to fill vacant jobs. However, as remote work becomes more common and people rediscover the benefits of living on the East Coast, Alberta businesses are less able to attract workers from that region. That said, as long as we provide economic opportunity, high-quality amenities, welcoming communities, and affordable living, Alberta will continue to draw other Canadians to the province for years to come.