Canadians Are on the Move, to Smaller Communities


For decades, Canadians moved to the larger cities (census metropolitan areas, or CMAs) with their economic opportunities. The latest estimates indicate that CMAs have 72 per cent of the nation’s population. Yet recent data shows Canadians are moving away from the CMAs, to smaller communities.

But first, a bit of background.

Statistics Canada divides the nation into CMAs, Census Agglomerations (CAs) and areas outside CMAs and CAs. CMAs and CAs are labour markets “formed by one or more adjacent municipalities centred on a population centre (core)” with the municipalities having a “high degree of integration with the core as measured by commuting flows. CMAs have at least 100,000 residents and CAs 10,000. CMAs and CAs are much more than their core municipalities, after which they are named.

For example, the Toronto CMA largely includes all the territory between Oakville, Ajax, Lake Simcoe and Mono (map), and the city of Toronto has only 45 per cent of the residents. The city of Vancouver has only 25 per cent of the CMA population.

Moreover, these geographies are not the same thing as rural versus urban. CMAs and CAs have much more rural land than urban.

Statistics Canada estimates that the 35 CMAs lost 252,000 net internal migrants (residents moving across provincial boundaries) to other parts of the country between 2017/2018 and 2021/2022. This is a considerable loss and compares to a net gain of 6,000 in the previous five years. Some of this large increase is related to the COVID pandemic, as households moved to smaller communities, taking advantage of remote and hybrid working arrangements.

The largest loss was in the largest CMA, Toronto, out of which a net 325,000 moved, 93 per cent of whom moved elsewhere in Ontario, such as Guelph, Peterborough and London. In the previous five years, the Toronto CMA had lost 183,000 net internal migrants.

The situation was similar in the Montreal CMA, which lost 145,000 net internal migrants, with 83 per cent moving elsewhere in Quebec, such as Sherbrooke, Granby and Lachute.

The Vancouver CMA lost 65,000 net internal migrants, moving to other parts of British Columbia, such as Chilliwack, Kelowna and Courtenay. This loss was well above the 40,000 in the previous five years. Unlike the two larger CMAs, Vancouver gained net interprovincial migrants (25,000), reducing the overall net internal migration loss.

The other three major CMAs, Ottawa-Gatineu (28,000), Calgary (19,000) and Edmonton (18,000), all posted net internal migration gains.

The 117 CAs gained 125,000 net internal migrants, 94 per cent of whom moved within the same province. This is a substantial increase from the 36,000 gain in the previous five years.

But the largest net internal migration gain was outside the CMAs and CAs, at 127,000. This compares to a 41,000 loss in the previous five years. These are areas where population centres have fewer than 10,000 residents.

Meanwhile, the Maritimes have reversed their long negative internal migration. The Halifax CMA gained 23,000 net internal migrants, more than Calgary or Edmonton, despite having less than one-third of their populations. The Halifax gain was a far lower 4,000 in the previous five years. New Brunswick had gains, such as in the Moncton and Saint John CMAs and the Fredericton CA. In Prince Edward Island, the Charlottetown and Summerside CAs had small gains.

None of this is to suggest that the CMAs are losing. Strong population growth continues in many, with more births and deaths and international migration (immigration). Moreover, some of the recent increase in net internal migration does appear to have been driven by the pandemic, especially the growth in working at home.

But the trends were already evident before. Analysts have cited notoriously high house prices as instrumental in the movement away from the largest CMAs. Mike Moffat, founding director of the PLACE Centre think tank in Toronto, told the Globe and Mail, “This is people moving to London (Ontario) or Moncton or basically outside of the economic region. So this is a fundamental difference.”

The Canadian Dream for both aspiring natives and immigrants could be increasingly realized in smaller areas, not only in central Canada, the Prairies and the West, but also even in the Maritimes.

Reprinted by permission of Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston, a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to complete the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life and Toward More Prosperous Cities: A Framing Essay on Urban Areas, Transport, Planning and the Dimensions of Sustainability.

Photo: Halifax, Nova Scotia (City Hall), now receiving strong net domestic migration from other parts of Canada, via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License.