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The long-term trends: The census rural population
Demographic trends of larger urban centres and in rural and small town areas
Differences within rural and small town areas: population by Metropolitan
Demographic trends inside and outside predominantly rural regions
The long-term trends are best portrayed by monitoring the rural population as published by the Census of Population – i.e. the census rural population (Box 1). According to this definition, the majority of Canada's population lived outside census urban settlements until shortly after 1921 (Figure 1). Since 1941, there has been stronger growth in census urban areas but only modest growth in census rural areas. Since 1941, the census rural population has varied between 5.2 million and 6.4 million. In 2006, Canada's census rural population increased marginally (3% over the previous five years) to reach 6.3 million. This was slightly below the 6.4 million recorded in 1991 and 1996. In the meantime, the census urban population has grown from 6 million in 1941 to 25 million in 2006 – the increase from 2001 to 2006 was 6%, twice the rate of growth in census rural areas in the same period.
Not every province has shown the same stability in its census rural population over the last six decades. Notably, the census rural population of Saskatchewan has continually declined over the last six decades (Table 1). Only Alberta and Manitoba have shown a consistent growth in their census rural population in recent quinquennial periods. The growth at the Canada level between 2001 and 2006 was due to growth in four provinces (Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta) and two territories (Yukon and Northwest Territories)1.
To emphasize the continuous growth of the census urban population, Figure 2 shows that in each five-year period in the last fifty-five years, the census urban population has grown by 5% or more. On the other hand, the census rural population declined during the strong urban growth of the 1960s, then grew as part of the population turnaround of the 1970s and the 1980s (Rothwell et al. 2002a, with provincial detail in Rothwell et al. 2002b), declined in the 1990s and grew again from 2001 to 2006.
As emphasized by du Plessis et al. (2001), the choice of rural definition should be determined by the question being addressed. When Canadians lived in the "short distance society" (Persson et al., 1997, Figure 10.2a), the census rural definition was appropriate because nearly all aspects of social interaction, including the place of work, was local. However, as Canadian society has moved to the "industrial society" and then to the "open society" (Persson et al., 1997, Figures 10.2b and 10.2c), employment and social interaction is occurring across more and more space. Commuting longer distances is now a way of life for many workers.
Statistics Canada delineates the commuting shed for larger urban centres (CMAs and CAs) by examining commuting patterns (Box 1). Not surprisingly, many census rural residents now live within the commuting zone of a larger urban centre. Specifically, by 2006, 35% of Canada's census rural population lived within the commuting zone of a larger urban centre and thus in close proximity to urban job opportunities (Figure 3).
The share of the census rural population residing within urban labour markets has more than doubled since 1976
As noted by Persson et al. (1997), Canadian society has transformed from a "short-distance society" to a more "open society." Driving long distances is becoming more common – thanks to better vehicles and better roads – although the recent trends indicate that the price of transporting people is now increasing (Bollman and Prud'homme, 2006). Thus, in order to understand the trends in the number of people living in rural and small town labour markets (i.e. in areas outside the commuting shed of larger urban centres), the demographic trends for Canada's rural and small town population are presented here.
In 1966, there were 7.6 million Canadians living in rural and small town labour markets (Figure 4). Residents in these areas are outside the main commuting zone of a town of 10,000 or more2. This population has tended to grow in each intercensal period–note that the line for RST slopes upward between each census period (except for 1996 to 2001)3.
Since 1981, there have been about six million individuals living in RST areas. There was a marginal decline from 1996 to 2001. There was a 1% increase from 2001 to 2006. In 2006, there were six million inhabitants in RST areas4.
Note also that the RST population is larger than the population living in smaller cities (Census Agglomerations with an urban core population of 10,000 or more). In 2006, there were 4.1 million inhabitants in Census Agglomerations.
The relatively constant level of the RST population at the Canada level since 1981 hides considerable fluctuation in some provinces. Details for each province and territory are provided in Bollman and Clemenson (forthcoming).
The RST population has grown in each period since 1966, with the exception of the 1996 to 2001 period (Figure 5). However, at the Canada level, RST areas have grown slower than smaller cities (CAs) which, in turn, have grown slower than the larger cities (CMAs). There was one exception–in the 1976 to 1981 period, RST areas grew faster than the CMAs or CAs. One contributing factor was the so-called "turnaround" of rural-urban migration patterns. Canada had experienced net rural-to-urban migration for decades. In the 1970s, there was a "turnaround" in this pattern as there was net urban-to-rural migration. Specifically, more people moved from urban to rural than moved from rural to urban (Rothwell et al., 2002a, 2002b).
Larger cities grew more than smaller cities and (except from 1976 to 1981) smaller cities grew more than rural and small town areas
Due both to population reclassification and slower rural population growth, the share of Canada's population living in rural and small town areas has declined from 36% in 1971 to 19% in 2006 (Figure 6). This decline is continuing in a context where the rural and small town population has been steady at around 6 million inhabitants for the past 25 years.
Again, there is a wide range across the provinces in terms of the share of the population living in RST areas. In 2006, only 12% of Ontario's population was living in RST areas. In contrast, 100% of Nunavut's population is classified as rural and small town (Figure 7). The sharp decline from 2001 to 2006 in the share of the New Brunswick population living in RST areas was due to the classification of Miramichi as a CA (with a 2001 population of 25,274) plus an expansion in the boundaries of the Bathurst CA (8,588 residents in 2001 were re-classified into the CA) and an expansion in the boundaries of the New Brunswick component of the Campbellton CA (2,555 residents in 2001 were re-classified into the CA). This reclassification of 36,417 individuals reduced the RST share of the New Brunswick population by 5.1 percentage points. Note also that the RST share of the total population of Newfoundland and Labrador increased from 2001 to 2006 due to the re-classification of the former CAs of Gander and Labrador City to RST areas. This was partially offset by the classification of Bay Roberts as a CA in this period.
Although a relatively small share of Ontario's population is RST, these 1.4 million inhabitants constitute 24% of Canada's RST population (Figure 8). Quebec contributes a slightly higher share of Canada's RST population, at 25% in 2006. Thus, although the RST residents of Ontario and Quebec are a relatively small share of the population within their respective provinces, these residents comprise one-half of all RST residents in Canada.
Not all rural and small town areas are the same. One way to differentiate among RST areas is to classify them according to the degree to which they are influenced by larger urban centres. The Statistics Canada MIZ (Metropolitan Influenced Zone) coding for each town and municipality is used for this purpose (Box 1).
In 2006, the six million RST residents were distributed as follows:
- About 1.4 million were living in a Strong MIZ.
- About 2.2 million were living in a Moderate MIZ.
- Another 2.0 million were living a Weak MIZ.
- Only about 0.3 million were living in a No MIZ.
- 0.06 million were living outside the CAs of Yellowknife and Whitehorse in the Territories (Figure 9).
Within rural and small town areas in 2006, 4.2 million people were living in either a moderate or weak Metropolitan Influenced Zone (MIZ)
Again, the distribution of population across the MIZ categories varies considerably across the provinces and Territories (Bollman and Clemenson, forthcoming).
It has already been noted that larger cities (CMAs) grew faster than smaller cities (CAs) which, in turn, tended to grow faster than RST areas. Here again the influence of the larger urban centres is evident. In each five-year period since 1986, Strong MIZ grew faster than Moderate MIZ which, in turn, grew faster than Weak MIZ (Figure 10). However, the population of No MIZ and the RST areas in the Territories fluctuate more – part of the growth is due to higher birth rates among the Aboriginal population. In 2001, 19% of Canada's population was under 15 years of age but 25% of the No MIZ population was under 15 years of age (Sorenson and Aylward, 2005, Table 3).
In each period, the population in the strong Metropolitan Influenced Zone (MIZ) grew faster than in the moderate Metropolitan Influenced Zone (MIZ) which, in turn, grew faster than in the weak Metropolitan Influenced Zone (MIZ)
This general growth pattern appears in most provinces in most periods. For example, the higher growth in Strong MIZ at the Canada level is due to high growth in Strong MIZ in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia over the 1986 to 2006 period (Table 2). However, there was no growth in the Strong MIZ of Newfoundland and Labrador since 1986.
The bulk of Canada's RST population lives in Moderate and Weak MIZ. At the Canada level, Moderate MIZ showed population growth in every period except 1996 to 2006 while Weak MIZ showed no change between 1986 and 1991, some growth between 1991 and 1996 and a decline in the 1996 to 2001 and the 2001 to 2006 periods.
Among the provinces, the Moderate MIZ of Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan saw a decline in population in every five-year period from 1986 to 2006. In contrast, the Moderate MIZ of Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia experienced population growth in every period.
The only province to experience population growth in every period from 1986 to 2006 in its Weak MIZ was Alberta. The Weak MIZ of Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan saw a decline in every period from 1986 to 2006.
The population of No MIZ is Aboriginal intensive. However, the higher birth rates of the Aboriginal population did not trigger continuous growth in No MIZ in most jurisdictions in the 1986 to 2006 period. Despite this, Canada's No MIZ has seen population growth in every five-year period since 1991. This growth has been mainly driven by the No MIZ of Ontario and Alberta which have experienced substantial population growth during these periods.
Population change in rural and small town areas by Metropolitan Influenced Zone (MIZ), Canada, provinces and territories, 1986 to 2006
The final rural definition considered here is the definition used by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which provides a broader, regional focus with which to examine census data (Box 1). Census divisions are used as the unit representing "regions". The OECD definition of rural is based on the population structure in 1996 (see Appendix–The rural quandary–for an explanation of the issues surrounding rural/urban boundaries).
In 1981, the population in predominantly rural regions was 8.1 million (Figure 11). The population in predominantly rural regions increased in each intercensal period from 1981 to 2006, reaching 9.4 million in 2006.
Within predominantly rural regions, the population in rural metro-adjacent regions increased in each period, reaching 4.8 million in 2006. The population in rural non-metro adjacent regions has experienced very slight growth over this 25-year period, reaching 3.9 million residents in 2006.
Meanwhile, the population in Canada's rural northern regions remained almost constant, recording 0.6 million residents in 2006.
Predominantly urban and intermediate regions recorded strong population growth over the 1981 to 2006 period. Growth in these regions was over 9% in the 1986 to 1991 period and over 6% in the most recent 2001 to 2006 period (Figure 12). During that latter period, the predominantly rural population growth was 3%. In each period, the predominantly rural population grew more slowly than in the more urban regions. Also, rural metro-adjacent population grew in each period whereas the population in the more rural regions (i.e. in rural non-metro-adjacent regions and rural northern regions) declined in some intercensal periods.
The predominantly rural population grew, but more slowly than the population of intermediate or predominantly urban regions
Among the provinces and territories, the population growth in predominantly rural regions has varied across the country. In the Atlantic Provinces, only Prince Edward Island has seen continuous growth, whereas Newfoundland and Labrador has witnessed a steady population decline in its predominantly rural regions in all census periods since 1981 (Table 3). Both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have experienced predominantly rural population decline in at least two intercensal periods. Elsewhere, Saskatchewan has declined since 1986 and Quebec declined in the 1981 to 1986 period and the 1996 to 2001 period. In contrast, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia have seen a population increase in every 5-year period from 1981 to 2006 in their predominantly rural regions.
Due to the relatively strong growth of population in predominantly urban and intermediate regions, the share of Canada's population in predominantly rural regions declined to 30% in 2006 (Figure 13). Recall that this is in the context of continuous (but relatively smaller) population growth in predominantly rural regions. The greatest decline in share was in rural non-metro-adjacent regions where the share fell from 15% in 1981 to 12% by 2006. In contrast, the share of Canada's population living in predominantly urban regions rose from 47% in 1981 to 50% by 2006.
This pattern of declining population shares of rural regions was mirrored in the majority of provinces for all types of rural regions. However, in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and in Manitoba, the share of the total population in rural metro-adjacent regions increased slightly over time (for details, see Bollman and Clemenson, forthcoming).
This paper has looked atCanada's rural population using three alternative definitions of rural. Using the first definition, census rural Canadians became a minority shortly after 1921. This transition varied by province. Saskatchewan's rural population became a minority only in 1971. In New Brunswick, the rural and urban population has been about even for the past 25 years with the census rural population representing 49% of the provincial population in 2006. Prince Edward Island and Nunavut remain as the only two jurisdictions where the census rural population represents a majority.
Over time, a larger and larger share of the census rural population (living outside settlements of 1,000 or more) has been living within the commuting zone of larger urban centres. Among individuals living in the countryside (i.e. the census rural population) in 2006, over one-third (35%) were living relatively near the jobs (and other services) of a larger urban centre.
Turning to the second definition of rural, the rural and small town population (living outside the commuting zone of larger urban centres) has maintained a level of about six million inhabitants since 1981. However, stronger growth among the population of larger urban centres means these six million individuals represent a smaller and smaller share of Canada's total population. Their share was down to 19% of Canada's population in 2006.
However, the population of rural and small town areas remains larger than the overall population of all smaller cities. In 2006, six million individuals lived in rural and small town areas, but only 4.1 million individuals lived in towns or cities with a population of 10,000 to 99,999 (i.e. Census Agglomerations).
Nearly one-quarter (23%) of rural and small town Canadians live within a (long) commute of a larger urban centre–i.e. they live in strong metropolitan influenced zones. Thus, over three-quarters of rural and small town Canadians rely almost5 solely on labour markets outside centres of 10,000 or more.
At the broader regional level of analysis, which represents the final definition of rural, the trends and patterns are similar to that of other rural definitions. Generally, the total population in rural regions has increased but the share of the total population has declined (to 30%) relative to the share in urban and intermediate areas. As with the rural and small town areas, those rural regions adjacent to metropolitan areas witnessed the highest growth from 1981 to 2006.
In plain words, the results show that the size of the rural population has remained stable over the last 25 years, although with a modest positive growth. However due to a rapid urban population growth, the weight of the rural population in the national demographic picture has declined steadily. The differences lie in the detailed actual numbers and the geography represented. As stated at the outset, the choice of a definition should be driven by the rural issue or question being addressed.
In Figure 4, each year has two data points. The data point for the population tabulated within the boundary of a given year is connected with a line to the data point for the previous census year where that data has been tabulated within the boundaries of the given census year. Thus, the line shows the population change within the (constant) boundaries of the end year of a five-year intercensal period. For any given year, the difference between the two dots is the size of the population that is reclassified according to the definition of the subsequent census (five years later). Reclassification of population includes the impact of a change in the boundaries of towns and municipalities, the impact of changes in which rural census subdivisions are assigned to a CMA or CA as commuting patterns change and the impact of settlements becoming classified as a CA as the size of the settlement grows (or, as population declines, there are cases where CAs are re-classified to RST areas).
Note that RST residents are not the same population as the census rural population. Recall that one-third of the census rural population lives in the countryside and in smaller settlements within CMAs and CAs. Thus, two-thirds of the census rural population lives in RST areas. The other residents of RST areas are census urban residents–inhabitants of settlements of 1,000 to 9,999.
In 2001 within strong MIZ, 41% of the resident workers commuted to a larger urban centre. For other MIZ categories, the share of resident workers commuting to a larger urban centre was small (13% in moderate MIZ and 1% in Weak MIZ) (Harris et al., 2008).
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