Insights

June 13, 2024

Not the population boom of the past

Bottom Line:

  • Since 2022, Alberta has seen unprecedented increases in both international and interprovincial migration, with an average of 46,000 net new people per quarter moving to the province in 2023, significantly higher than past population booms.
  • The demographic profile of migrants to Alberta has expanded, including a higher number of non-permanent residents, individuals from other provinces, and older individuals.
  • Alberta’s appeal is largely due to housing affordability and lower overall living costs compared to other major provinces, making it attractive to a diverse range of people.

Introduction

Alberta’s population is booming. Since 2022, the province has seen a rapid increase in both international and interprovincial migration. Though Alberta is no stranger to population booms, this one is notable for two reasons.

First, it marks a sharp turnaround versus recent trends. Prior to 2020, Alberta was attracting relatively few international migrants compared with other large provinces and was experiencing a large outflow of residents.  In fact, a top concern for Alberta was losing young people to other provinces. Now, with record-breaking in-migration in 2023, the top concern is how to respond to the mass influx.

Second, it is different from population booms of the past. Not only are more people coming than ever before, but we see changes in who is coming; where they are coming from; and what is bringing them to Wild Rose Country.

Bigger than before

Alberta’s current population boom stands out in terms of its magnitude. Over the past year, the province has welcomed an average of 46,000 net new people per quarter. By comparison, during the last big population boom (from 2011 to 2013), this rate was just 15,000 per quarter.

This growth is in stark contrast both with recent trends and with what we see elsewhere. Alberta’s population grew 4.1% over the last year, considerably higher than the 10-year average of just 1.5%. This surpasses national population growth of 3.0% and blows the OECD average of just 0.6% out of the water.

It also looks very different in terms of its drivers. The biggest driver of population growth today is non-permanent residents (NPRs): individuals with a permit to study and/or work for a short time. Non-permanent residents constitute over half of Alberta’s recent growth, a notable change from other population booms when their contribution was negligible.

In total, this amounts to about 200,000 NPRs coming to Alberta in 2023—an extraordinary 66% increase from the previous year. Specifically, most of this growth (60%) came from an increase in temporary foreign workers. The estimated 57,000 Ukrainians that have come to Alberta since the Russian invasion are likely contributing to this spike. But, because these individuals could hold work or study permits, it’s hard to determine their role in driving this change versus other factors.  

International migration of permanent residents (PRs) has also been significant. Alberta is attracting roughly double the number of new PRs than it did in past booms (13k quarterly compared to just 7k in 2011-2013). But, because of the outsized growth of NPRs, they account for a smaller proportion of growth than in the past.  

Of course, migration from other provinces has also surged. In 2023, Alberta saw a net increase of around 55,000 individuals moving from other provinces—a 45% increase compared with its last population boom. Though Alberta saw net in-migration from every province across Canada, a large majority of these individuals came from Ontario (a net increase of 23,000) and BC (a net increase of 15,000).

Migration with BC in particular has shown a sharp turnaround. Though there has always been significant movement between Alberta and BC, since 2014 Alberta has typically experienced a net loss of residents to the west, averaging around 9,000 people per year. But as of 2022, this trend reversed.

Attracting people of all ages

In past population booms, Alberta has attracted younger, working-age Canadians. Now Alberta is attracting individuals of all ages.   

Interprovincial migration

In 2023, individuals aged 20 to 29 accounted for 28% of in-migration, about 15% lower than during Alberta’s last major boom while those aged 30 to 39 made up a similar amount of growth as previously (20%).

However, older adults are increasingly choosing Alberta. Individuals 60 and over comprise around 14% of in-migration from other provinces—a significant increase from 1% in 2013. The number of individuals aged 70 to 79 has also spiked now accounting for 5% of in-migrants, compared to just 0.2% a decade ago.

International migration

Likewise, though immigrants tend to be younger than the resident population, Alberta is also attracting more older newcomers. Permanent residents who are 60 or older accounted for around 10% of all PR growth in 2023, compared to the historical average of just 6%. With the growth in the number of PRs overall, it may be the case that younger PRs are sponsoring their parents or grandparents to immigrate to Canada. According to one source, the Parents and Grandparents Program hit a new record in 2023, with Alberta attracting the second-most number of immigrants of any province.

Non-permanent migration

However, non-permanent residents have shown a demographic shift in the opposite direction, with more children than in the past. Again, this may reflect the influx of Ukrainians into Alberta, many of whom brought their families with them. Those aged 0 to 19 account for 24% of growth in NPRs compared to just 15% a decade ago. Meanwhile, those aged 20 to 29 made up 32% of growth, much less than in 2013.

Looking for more affordable housing

While there are many possible factors driving any one individual or family to move to Alberta, a primary reason seems to be housing affordability, as the cost of home ownership and rent have drifted further out of reach across many of Canada’s major cities.  

According to Alberta Central, Calgary and Edmonton are now among a minority of cities that are considered affordable relative to local income levels. And the difference in prices is stark: the average detached home costs around $2 million in Vancouver and $1.5 million in Toronto. Whereas a detached home in Calgary would be around $700,000, and in Edmonton around $530,000.

Additionally, housing affordability may be attracting retirees who are looking to lower housing costs. As discussed in a recent report by ATB, older individuals may be pulling equity out of homes in more expensive areas to spend more on other things that they value.  

More broadly, Alberta’s overall affordability advantage may also be playing a role in attracting migrants, as cost of living remains a primary concern for most Canadians. For instance, Calgary has recently been highlighted for having the most affordable grocery bills among cities like Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Regina, and Vancouver. This affordability extends beyond groceries; Alberta’s lack of provincial sales tax combined with lower overall tax rates make it an appealing destination for many.

Conclusion

Alberta’s recent surge in population growth is significantly different from past booms, driven by non-permanent residents and a sharp swing in net interprovincial migration flows. As well, Alberta’s appeal now extends beyond young, working-age individuals, with notable increases in the number of older individuals, and those presumably seeking better housing affordability and a lower cost of living, coming to the province. Overall, the magnitude of recent growth, role of non-permanent residents, and broader appeal of the province set Alberta’s current population boom apart from the past.

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