Rob Roach: Alberta's identity is built on growth for good reason
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Rob Roach: Alberta's identity is built on growth for good reason

When it comes to population growth, Alberta is an outlier.

Our GDP per capita is among the highest in the world, but our population growth rate is more in keeping with relatively poor places such as Ethiopia and Nigeria. While the populations of wealthy countries like Japan and Germany are shrinking, Alberta’s average annual population growth between 2004-14 was over eight times greater than in the European Union and almost three times the rate in the United States. Alberta’s population has increased by 1.2 million people since 2000 — roughly equivalent to adding another Calgary or Edmonton to the province.

Even with the provincial economy shifting into low gear, Alberta’s population growth still led the country in 2015 at 1.8 per cent. Alberta might slip from top spot this year if oil prices remain low, but the long-term prognosis is for a return of strong population growth.

Alberta’s population increases in all seven scenarios considered by Statistics Canada. The province is projected to reach between 5.6 million (low-growth scenario) and 6.8 million (high-growth) by 2038 compared to 4.2 million today. This translates into annual average growth of between 1.6 and 2.8 per cent — the highest among the provinces under all scenarios.

In the 94 years between 1921 and 2015, Alberta has only posted a population loss in two years (1942 and 1946). Saskatchewan’s population shrank 30 times during the same period (most recently in 2006). Despite its boom and bust economy, the norm in Alberta is for there to be a lot more people around compared to the year before.

On the pro side, more people means more economic activity, a larger labour force, additional taxpayers, greater democratic clout in the federation and a bigger market. A growing population can also help catch the eye of investors and businesses looking to relocate their operations. Perhaps one of the most important, but also hardest to pin down advantages is the sense of confidence and dynamism that a growing population brings.

However, while Alberta’s population growth has been a tremendous boon for the province, it has also created some challenges.

Absorbing annual growth averaging 2.4 per cent over the last 10 years puts stress on infrastructure, public services, ecosystems and communities, especially in years when growth tops three per cent as it did in 2006 and 2013. From schools and hospital beds to campgrounds and overpasses, it’s not easy to keep up with the swelling ranks of new Albertans.

The factors driving population growth in Alberta reveal a dynamic state of affairs. Since 1972, over 3.1 million people packed up from somewhere else in Canada and moved to Alberta — while just under 2.5 million Albertans decided to try their luck elsewhere in the country.  At the same time, a relatively large number of babies were born in Alberta, with the provincial birth rate well above the national average and higher than in countries such as the United States, China, Germany and Japan.

Among the provinces, Alberta posted the highest rate of natural increase (births minus deaths), the highest rate of net interprovincial migration and the third highest rate of net international immigration over the last 10 years. As a result, Alberta is — and feels like — a place that is constantly growing.

The “feels like” element is important because it adds to the province’s sense of itself as a place full of opportunity and raises expectations. When the economy suffers as it is now, we are fearful that the flow into Alberta from other parts of the country will reverse. This is why, even though our total population has not contracted in seven decades, the image of a modern-day wagon train leaving the province in the wake of low oil prices worries us.

The good news is that when the economy picks up again, the inflow of people from other parts of the country and the world will almost certainly rise as well.

Rob Roach is Director of Insight with ATB Financial. Additional analysis of Alberta’s population growth can be found in the latest edition of Perch at atb.com/economics. 

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