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Demography is a key aspect of rural development. How many people live in rural Canada? Is the rural population increasing or decreasing? Is this a short-term fluctuation or a long term trend? The size and pattern of growth of the rural population is typically the first question of interest to rural policy analysts, organizations and researchers.

This bulletin updates and summarizes information on the structure and trends for the rural population of Canada, using three major definitions of rural Canada: the "census rural" definition, the "rural and small town" definition and the OECD "predominantly rural region" definition. These definitions are explained in Box 1. Each definition illustrates a specific aspect of rural Canada. As discussed by du Plessis et al. (2001), the choice of a definition should be driven by the rural issue or question being considered. Some examples are provided in Box 1.
At the Canada level, the general trends are similar regardless of the definition used. The differences are found in the details because the results for the three different definitions of rural capture population trends at differing geographic scales.

The overall picture, at the Canadian level, is that the rural population is growing. Most, but not all, of this growth is taking place in areas adjacent to larger urban centres. However, rural population growth is less than the growth in urban areas. As a result, the rural share of Canada's total population continues to decline. Moreover, the rural population is not growing in all provinces. Each province and territory has reported rural population growth and rural population decline in recent decades.

The trends described by the census rural definition add a longer temporal perspective to this broad picture and show the turning points in Canada's urbanization pattern. The rural and small town definition emphasizes the labour market dimension of urban agglomerations. Differences within rural and small town areas, classified by using Metropolitan Influenced Zones, show how the proximity to major agglomerations has an important impact on population growth patterns. The OECD definition of predominantly rural regions emphasizes that when a broader, regional scale is used to delineate the rural population, the size of the rural population is larger than when the rural population is documented at a smaller scale of locality or community.

This analysis is entirely based on data from the Census of Population from 1981 to 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2007).