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Geography influences so much in our lives—where we work, how we live and what we do. In measuring all these activities, Statistics Canada relies on a framework of well-defined geographic areas in collecting, organizing, analyzing and presenting the vast economic and social data the Agency produces about Canada’s people and places. Defining these geographic areas—a process called geocoding—is fundamental to how Statistics Canada measures trends in Canadian society.

Geocoding is so fundamental because it links data about Canadians to their geography. Together with census data, geographers can find out how cities are growing, where people are settling, the median age or income of the inhabitants.

By using software to link with postal codes, policy makers can study school districts or commuting patterns, and governments can use data to determine, for example, transfer payments, or the need for more hospitals or services for seniors.

Growing more urbanized

Map 15.1  Greater Golden Horseshoe population change from 2001 to 2006, by 2006 census subdivision

The 2006 Census showed that Canada’s population continues to grow and gravitate toward larger urban centres. Reflecting this trend, geographers have added six new census metropolitan areas (CMAs) to Canada’s list of large urban areas—Moncton, N.B.; Barrie, Brantford, Guelph and Peterborough, Ont.; and Kelowna, B.C.

With these six cities, Canada now has 33 CMAs, which include 68% of the population. This is up from 27 CMAs in 2001 and 25 CMAs in 1996.

Smaller urban areas are known as census agglomerations (CAs). A CA is defined when an urban core population reaches at least 10,000. For the 2006 Census, there are 111 CAs in Canada, compared with 112 in 1996. Six CAs became CMAs, seven new CAs were defined and two—Gander and Labrador City in Newfoundland and Labrador—were retired because the core population of each dropped below 10,000.

Several factors, including total population, population of the urban core and commuting flows, determine when a CA is promoted to a CMA. One reason that the number of large urban centres increased in 2006 is that the delineation rules for defining a CMA changed.

As of March 2003, a CA is no longer required to have an urban core population of 100,000 to be promoted to the status of a CMA. Instead, a CA assumes the status of a CMA if it attains a total population of at least 100,000 of which 50,000 or more must live in the urban core.

Together, CMAs and CAs contain 80% of Canada’s population, although they cover only 4% of the land area—a sign that we are growing more urbanized.

A planning tool

Statistics Canada’s official classification for geographical areas in Canada is the Standard Geographical Classification (SGC). The geographical areas in the SGC—provinces and territories, counties and municipalities—were chosen because Canadians know them and because these entities are significant users of statistics when they plan programs that involve spending public funds.

The 10 provinces and 3 territories—the primary political subdivision of Canada—are at the top of the SGC hierarchy. Next are census divisions, which the SGC defines as a group of neighbouring municipalities. Usually, they exist for regional planning and managing common services, such as policing. Often, a census division will correspond to a county or a regional district.

Census divisions are relatively stable geographic areas, which makes it easier to follow trends over time. For the 2006 Census, Statistics Canada delineated 288 census divisions in Canada, unchanged from the 1996 and 2001 censuses.

Census subdivisions are the smallest geographic area in the SGC. Generally, a census subdivision is a single municipality or its equivalent for statistical purposes, such as an Indian reserve. Census subdivisions can change, however, because of municipal restructuring or amalgamation. For the 2006 Census, there were 5,418 census subdivisions, compared with 5,600 in 2001.

Zones and regions

Like peering through a microscope, the SGC allows demographers to look at Canada from the widest focus—national, provincial and territorial data—right down to the narrowest focus—data from a census subdivision’s suburbs, exurbs and neighbourhoods.

A recent concept in geography, the metropolitan-influenced zone (MIZ), uses data on Canadians’ commuting flows to and from work to reveal patterns and degrees of social and economic integration between urban areas and the census subdivisions not included in any CMA or CA—these non-CMA/CA census subdivisions are sometimes described as ‘rural and small town Canada.’

The influence of any nearby CMA or CA on rural and small town Canada can be either strong, moderate, weak or not at all. For example, a student might use the MIZ concept to closely compare the population characteristics of a rural area near Toronto with the population characteristics of the rural outskirts of Whitehorse, Yukon—perhaps comparing to what degree rents or unemployment rates are influenced by the two very different nearby CMAs.

Economic Regions (ERs) are another way to look at Canada’s geography—they are made by grouping census divisions. As the name implies, Canada’s 76 ERs describe regional economic activity. The ER is a geographic unit small enough to permit regional analysis, yet large enough to include enough respondents so that a broad range of economic statistics can be collected—for example, the Labour Force Survey uses economic regions in some provinces when collecting its data.