What the 2016 national census means for northern Alberta, including the Smoky River region

Dan Dibbelt
Smoky River Regional
Economic Development
The 2016 Statistics Canada Census results are out and the winners are …. The big cities. This shouldn’t amaze anyone as this is a continuation of a long-standing trend. In 1851, the first year they started recording populations here, 87 percent of Canada’s population was rural. That is also not so surprise as in 1851, Canada was pretty much rural.

Rural Canada remained the majority until 1931, when there were 46 percent rural compared to 54 percent urban. In 2011 just 19 per cent of Canada’s population is rural (basically meaning not living in a city). Naturally, that does not mean less people are living in rural Alberta. In fact, that number has tripled since 1851, however, the urban population has gone up 85 times.

Overall, Canada’s population now exceeds 35 million people, with two-thirds of those living within 100 km of the Canada/US border. And about two thirds of our population growth can be attributed to immigration. Most immigrants to Canada choose to settle in the larger Canadian urbans, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and very few choose to permanently relocate to rural Alberta.

A quick scan of the data for Alberta municipalities shows that every city in Alberta has grown from just one percent in Wetaskiwin to 17.8 per cent in Okotoks. The City of Grande Prairie grew by 13.5 per cent and sits just over 66,000 people.

In the Smoky region, we have felt the impacts of the natural rural decline and added to that the slowdown in the economy.

Our overall region fell from 4,782 people to 4,332, a loss of 450 people. Giriouxville saw the largest decline from 266 people to 219. Donnelly, our only community to grow went from 305 people to 342. Falher saw a decline from 1,075 to 1047, however still above the 2006 level of 941 people. McLennan went from 809 people down to 701 and the M.D. saw a decline from 2,126 to 2,023.

Are these numbers reason for panic? Yes and no. First, it is not great news. We never want to see our populations decline. It lowers overall municipal tax revenues, it often leads to a reduction in local services and it often means a decline in rural retail shops.

But this is a trend we are seeing across rural Alberta and Canada. The rural communities that are still growing tend to be located next or near a large urban. People relocate there because housing is usually less expensive and many prefer a small community life style.

Alberta grew by 11.6 per cent, the majority of that being in the large urban centers. Edmonton and Calgary combined grew by 338,000 people, the equivalent of all northern Alberta’s population. So clearly there is a rural problem. It is a problem that our smaller communities can only do so much to solve.

Without provincial initiatives to support rural Alberta this trend will continue and it will not just be our rural communities that suffer, but the province and country. Alberta and Canada’s commodities are in rural Alberta and they require people to extract, harvest and forest them.

Agriculture has always been a major economic driver for the province and this will not change as long as our population grows and people eat. Yet the present government cut back funding for the Agricultural ministry.

The present government has come up with some great programs like the CARES grant, however the total value of the CARES grant is just 30 million.

The grant will help communities look at economic solutions for their regions, but it is not enough. Our smaller communities have trouble attracting professionals such as doctors, nurse’s teachers and lawyers. We need those professionals in our communities to attract other people into our communities.

The provincial government needs to look at incentives to encourage new immigrants and existing citizens to relocate to rural Alberta. While this government is to be commended for looking at new opportunities, including sustainable and green energy we cannot lose site of the fact that Alberta is a commodity based economy.

The government also needs to look at programs that will assist small and medium enterprises in rural Alberta. When they do that, they need to start talking to rural Albertans to help develop those programs, not depend on employees living in our larger centers who, though they may have the schooling, do not know what it is like to do business in rural Alberta.

In the meantime, Smoky River Regional economic development and your municipally elected officials will continue to do what we can and hope it will be enough.

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