As Canada’s Population Booms, Alberta is Growing at the Fastest Pace in the Country

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It was closing in on 11 p.m. MT when I stepped out of Calgary airport a few nights ago, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the traffic mayhem outside the arrivals doors.

Vehicle lights filled every lane, as far back as I could see. A flurry of taxis, cars and pickups darted to and from the curb like it was the pit lane at the Indianapolis 500.

Not an unusual scene at any major airport in a large North American city. But this isn’t New York: It’s Calgary, late at night, on a Thursday, in late September – not exactly peak travel season.

This is pretty much how it has looked every time I’ve made the trip to my hometown this year. There are a lot of people coming and going – but, as the data show, mostly coming.

Statistics Canada’s midyear update of population and demographics, released last week, showed that as the Canadian population booms, Alberta is the booming-est place of all. In the 12 months ended July 1, the province’s population surged four per cent, the fastest pace in the country. The growth was juiced by a massive 106,000 Canadians who moved to Alberta from other provinces. (Net in-migration was 56,000, as nearly 50,000 people also left the province for other provinces in that period.)

Even for Alberta, whose oil and gas business has long attracted workers from other provinces, that’s a spectacular number. The net migration figure is the biggest on record, for any province, in Statscan’s 52 years of data. Only once – in 1980-81 – have more Canadians moved to the province in a single year.

Alberta’s nation-leading economic strength is an obvious draw. A recent outlook from economists at Toronto-Dominion Bank estimated that the province’s gross domestic product will expand by a healthy 2.3 per cent this year, far stronger than the meek 1.2-per-cent forecast for the country as a whole. In the past 12 months, Alberta employment is up 4.1 per cent, far above the national pace of 2.5 per cent. While the Canadian labour market has slowed appreciably in recent months, the province has added 44,000 net new jobs since April – generating nearly 60 per cent of the country’s job growth all by itself.

It helps that the rumours of the death of the oil and gas industry have been greatly exaggerated.

Over the past year, Alberta-produced crude oil has enjoyed some of its strongest prices in nearly a decade. That has been a shot in the arm to oil and gas exploration: Drilling of new wells has, similarly, been near decade-long highs. The province has projected record crude oil production this year. No matter your opinion on fossil fuels, they are an undeniable creator of jobs and wealth – and their success still attracts Canadians in pursuit of both.

But Brad Parry, head of Calgary Economic Development, insists that the current population boom isn’t the strictly oil-driven phenomenon of previous decades.

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“Now, you’re seeing them coming for a whole bunch of other industries,” said Mr. Parry, who noted that Calgary alone added 42,000 new residents in the past year.

“It’s a combination of the opportunities, the diversification, the growth and the lifestyle, I think, is what has been driving us.”

And a big part of that “lifestyle” component is merely being able to afford a home here. As of August, the average price of a house in Alberta was $440,000 – compared with $956,000 in neighbouring British Columbia and $832,000 in Ontario. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Edmonton was under $1,300 a month in August, compared with more than $2,600 in Toronto and nearly $3,000 in Vancouver, according to Rentals.ca.

Of course, all of these newcomers have given a serious boost to both demand and prices. The cost of a one-bedroom rental in Calgary is up more than 20 per cent in the past year. The city is one of the few genuinely hot home-sales markets in the country, with resales up 25 per cent year-over-year, and prices up 7.3 per cent.

In terms of keeping up with the housing demand over the longer term, Calgary is focusing on turning a major economic curse of the past few years into a virtue. The city’s sea of downtown office towers emptied out long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a casualty of the collapse of the oil market in 2015-16.

So Calgary’s downtown revitalization plan over the past several years has placed an emphasis on converting offices into residential space. The city has given 10 such conversion projects the go-ahead, with more on the way; the plan will ultimately turn about two million square feet of office space into new downtown homes.

But in terms of further expanding and diversifying Calgary’s economy, Mr. Parry is more than happy with the flood of newcomers. For the city’s growth industries – in clean energy, in ag tech, in transport and logistics – he believes the fast-growing labour supply (up 3.9 per cent in the past year) will accelerate those businesses’ growth.

Source : The Globe and Mail