Thursday, July 02, 2009

On rural Canada's evolution

Today on Canada Day, Canada's national holiday, the CTV television network's Andrea Janus produced an article with an overly lurid title, "Will immigration, aging kill Small Town, Canada?". In the past couple of decades, the make-up of the Canadian population has changed very considerably.

Canada has long been celebrated as a multi-cultural society, but the makeup of the Canadian mosaic, now 33 million people strong, has changed over the years.

Two decades ago, the average Canadian was in his or her late twenties, less likely to be in a relationship with someone of a different ethnic origin and new immigrants were more likely to be of European background.

Today, the average Canadian is 39 years old, more likely to be married to someone of a different ethnicity and new immigrants are more likely to be from Asia or the Middle East.

"What we're seeing in Canada is the changing face of Canadians in that more and more of the Canadian population is coming from places in Africa, Latin America and Asia," said Mark Rosenberg, a professor of geography and community health and epidemiology at Queens University in Ontario.

"And so the diversity of the Canadian population has changed significantly over the last 20 years," he told

Aging is a very notable phenomenon, stemmed only by heavy immigration relatively to other developed societies with medium-to-low fertility.

On July 1, 2007, the median age of Canadians was 39 years. In 1971, it was 26 years.

Canada's aging population is largely a result of our relatively low birth rate -- in 2004, it fell to 10.5 live births for every 1,000 population, the lowest since such statistics began to be compiled in 1921.

Indeed, because two-thirds of Canada's population growth comes from immigration and not new births, Canada is not far behind Japan, considered the world's "oldest" country with a median age of 41.

By contrast, 60 per cent of the population growth in the United States comes from a higher birth rate. The average age there is 36.6.

These two factors--the aging of the Canadian population, and the dependence on immigration for population growth--combine with the concentration of immigration to large cities to produce a serious problem for rural Canada.

If Canada's population growth is largely attributable to immigration, and the majority of immigrants settle in and around Canada's largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver), are the days of small towns numbered?

More than four out of five Canadians live in an urban area, according to the 2006 census, and those areas grew more rapidly than rural areas between 2001 and 2006.

And while 35.7 per cent of urban residents in Canada were between the ages of 20 and 44, only 27.7 per cent were between those ages in Canada's rural areas.

But Rosenberg said it is unlikely that, even though young adults leave small towns in large numbers to pursue higher education and job opportunities, Canada's rural villages will disappear completely.

"It's not about the disappearances of Small Town, Canada," Rosenberg said. "But it is about the disappearance of some communities, particularly some of the smallest communities in rural and northern places, that will slowly see their populations disappear."

What's going on with rural Canada?

Since censuses began in Canada, there has been an inexorable urbanization of the Canadian population: in 1851, 13% of Canada's 2.4 million inhabitants were urbanites; in 1951, 62% of Canada's 14 million; and in 2001, 80% of Canada's 30 million. While there are questions about the proper definition of urban areas, the general direction of the trend is clear.

Rural society in both both both English Canada and in Québec has been marked by this urbanization, the traditional social and economic bases of rural society have come under attack by the modernization of agriculture, as traditional rural cultures become influenced by urban norms, and quite importantly, as young people leave for the cities. This article in Le Devoir notes the importance of this last feature.

Dans ces milieux, le départ des jeunes contribue à accélérer le processus de vieillissement démographique et, par conséquent, à accroître le rythme du dépeuplement. À cet égard, nous avons d'ailleurs observé l'existence d'une relation causale entre l'instabilité démographique et l'accroissement du nombre de personnes âgées au sein des espaces à faible densité humaine.

In these areas, the flight of the young contributes to the acceleration of population aging, and as a consequence, to accelerate depopulation. In this regard, we have elsewhere observed the existence of a causal relationship between demographic instability and the growth of the nomber of the elderly in areas with low population densities.

It's worth noting that rural populations have continued to grow--throughout the 1990s, they did experience absolute growth. It's just that population growth in rural areas has been relatively slower than in urban areas, with rural areas outside of small towns experiencing particularly slow or even negative growth. What has been going on most recently, in the 2001-2006 period?

"According to the statistics, the Northwest Territories had the greatest increase in its rural population at 11.1 per cent. It was followed by Quebec with 5.3 per cent, Manitoba at 4.2 per cent, Alberta at 3.7 per cent, Ontario and Yukon at 3.5 per cent, Nova Scotia at 1.4 per cent and B.C. and P.E.I. both at less that one per cent. Nunavut had the largest decline at 7.6 per cent.

On average, Canada's rural population grew by 2.7 per cent."

Saskatchewan's rural population shrunk by 3%.

Some rural areas are more dynamic than others--rural areas in southern and western Québec are faring substantially better than those in northern and eastern Québec, for example, and the rapid depopulation of rural Newfoundland has few if any parallels elsewhere in Canada. Still, with relatively fewer economic advantages, relatively worse health statistics, and relatively lower education levels, rural areas in Canada are going to face significant challenges.

What's the role of immigration in rural Canada? Quite limited, actually. In 1996, immigrants made up 27% of the population of urban areas versus 6% of the population of rural areas, while immigrants who arrived between 1981 and 1996 made up 2% of the population of rural areas and 13% of the population of urban areas. In all, in 2001 88% of Canada's immigrant population lived in cities. Pre-1981 immigrants enjoyed relatively higher living standards than their post-1981 immigrants, with members of visible minorities doing particularly badly.

There was very recently an affecting Ingrid Peretz article in The Glboe and Mail which chronicled the difficulty of one young and eligible Québec farmer in finding a long-term partner: women, it seemed, weren't interested in a life on the farm. This anecdote indicates the general direction of population trends in rural Canada, but not their inevitable destination. Populations in rural areas are not destined to disappear, although shrinkage is inevitable out of all but a few favoured areas. What is going to happen is the continued relative decline of rural populations and the continued cultural urbanization of rural populations, as relatively lower standards of living ensure that the Canadian-born will continue to move to the cities and immigrants will stay away.

I'm tempted to say that the Canadian experience reflects the experience of most other middle- and high-income countries. With rural economies increasingly mechanized and relatively higher living standards in urban areas, how can this fate not be avoided?

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