Prairie Metropolitan Areas Drive Canada’s Growth

Commentary, Housing Affordability, Wendell Cox

In Canada, growth is moving west, but not all the way. The big growth now is in the Prairies between central Canada and British Columbia, the Canadian part of the Great Plains.

Yet you can’t talk about metropolitan Canada without first mentioning the Toronto region.

The Greater Golden Horseshoe continues to dominate Canada’s population, according to the latest census metropolitan area estimates from Statistics Canada. Anchored by Toronto, the metropolitan areas of the Greater Golden Horseshoe (Hamilton, Kitchener, Oshawa, Brantford, Barrie, Peterborough St. Catherine’s – Niagara and Guelph) now have a population of 8.7 million residents, 23.4% of the national total of 35.5 million.

The Major Metropolitan Areas

Canada has six major metropolitan areas (populations over 1 million) and a total of 33 (Table 1).


Toronto remains the largest metropolitan area in the nation, at 6.1 million residents. The population has increased nearly 1.2 million since 2001, 300,000 of it in since the census year of 2011. In the past half-century, Toronto has steadily increased its share of Canada’s population. In 1961, 11 percent of the nation’s residents were in the Toronto metropolitan area. By 2014, 17 percent of the population was in Toronto. Toronto’s has built a margin of 2.0 million over second-ranked Montréal, an expansion of more than one half just since 2001. Montréal had been the largest metropolitan area in Canada until 1976.

Montréal continues to be Canada’s second largest metropolitan area, at 4.1 million. Montréal’s annual growth rate was higher between 2011 and 2014 than in the previous 10 years, though is still growing at less than the national average.

Vancouver is Canada’s third largest metropolitan area. In the second half of the 20th century, Vancouver grew at a rate considerably greater than that of the nation as a whole. However over the last three years, Vancouver’s has grown at a rate less than that of Canada as a whole. Vancouver is nearing a population of 2.5 million, which it should achieve in 2015.

Among Canada’s major metropolitan areas (over 1 million residents), Calgary is the fastest-growing. Calgary has reached a population of 1.4 million and is growing at 2.5 times the national rate (3.62 percent annually).Since 2001, Calgary has added more than 400,000 residents. Calgary’s growth rate has been spectacular. In 1951, Calgary had fewer than 150,000 residents, but has since grown into a major center specializing in energy. Calgary has the distinction of having built by far the largest post-World War II downtown area in either Canada or the United States (see photograph at the top of the article).

Edmonton has grown almost as quickly. From a population of under 200,000 in 1951, Edmonton has grown to more than 1.3 million. Edmonton’s annual growth rate since 2011 has been 3.27% and has added more than 360,000 residents since 2001.

Ottawa, the national capital (see photo below), stretches across the Ontario-Québec border, with Gatineau the largest municipality on the Quebec side. In 2011, Ottawa had been the fourth largest metropolitan area since 1941, but has been passed by both Calgary and Edmonton since 2011.

Moving to the Prairies?

The population estimates of the last three years indicate considerable growth in the Prairie metropolitan areas relative to the rest of the nation. The Prairies provinces are include Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan (Table 2).

Calgary and Edmonton have experienced strong growth for decades. The same was not true of Saskatchewan’s two largest cities, Saskatoon and Regina. After years of near population stagnation, both metropolitan areas, and the province added population at an accelerated rate. Saskatchewan’s growth pattern has paralleled that of North Dakota, which has shared the energy boom and experienced unprecedented growth after decades of stagnation.

Saskatoon’s annual growth rate tied with that of Calgary, at 3.62%. This is more than double the 2001 to 2011 growth rate. Regina nearly tripled its annual growth rate from 1.00% between 2001 and 2011 to 2.98% between 2011 and 2014.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was Winnipeg. Winnipeg was for many years Canada’s fourth largest metropolitan area, a title it relinquished to Ottawa in the 1960s. By 2001, Winnipeg had fallen to eighth place, its population exceeded by not only Calgary and Edmonton, but also Quebec City. However, in a major turnaround, Winnipeg’s annual growth rate has more than doubled since 2011.

The strength of the Prairies is evident in the regional data (Table 2). The metropolitan areas in the Prairie Provinces grew at more than double the rate achieved by the metropolitan areas in the other regions of Canada between 2011 and 2014.

The metropolitan areas in all of the four other regions of Canada grew at rates below that of the nation as a whole between 2011 and 2014. The slowest growth was in the Atlantic Provinces (New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island). The annual growth rate of Québec’s metropolitan areas was the second lowest. However growth edged up in Québec’s metropolitan areas. Ontario and British Columbia had grown an approximately the national metropolitan area rate between 2001 and 2011. However, both provinces saw their metropolitan growth fall below the national rate in the last three years.

The Prairies are likely to experience a reduction in their population growth rate as a result of lower oil and commodity prices. It is an open question how long the lower prices will prevail. The proximate cause of the lower prices is OPEC’s relaxed rationing of its supply to the world. That could change by political whim at virtually any time, or due to disruptions in the Middle East or West Africa, sending prices higher.

Meanwhile, non-metropolitan Canada continues its very slow growth, which now stands at one-third that of the nation and one-fifth that of the metropolitan areas.