Last week Statistics Canada released the numbers for the 2011 census. The numbers show that Canada now has a population over 34.6 million. For the most part the news seems positive. Only two cities shrank in population – Windsor and Thunder Bay. Population growth has long been tied to economic prosperity. There are some worrying trends though, such as the greying of the population and the diminishing fertility rate, but these might be matters worth addressing later.
What caught my eye were the media reports about the implications about the rapid growth of provinces like Alberta and British Columbia and the comparatively sluggish growth of Ontario. These articles (one and two) in the Globe and Mail highlight that. Both argue that the political, economic and social weight of Canada is moving westward. Ontario is diminished and the West is rising.
I feel this analysis overlooks some critical facts. One, Ontario is not in decline. Ontario managed to grow within the last five years, just not at the breakneck pace of the western provinces. When compared to the American Great Lake states Ontario is incredibly impressive. Two, different economies are finding their stride. Alberta as an energy economy and British Columbia as a Pacific economy are both tied to greater economic engines. Ontario is struggling, comparatively, with a declining manufacturing base. Three, since when is the West’s gain Ontario’s loss? The Canadian nation is not a zero-sum game, if Ontario grows more slowly that hurts all of Canada. Each part of the country supports all the others.
The media attention I pointed to above focuses considerably on the shift of political weight westward. That’s true, but Ontario will have 121MPs in the next House of Commons, compared to 34 in Alberta and 42 in British Columbia, after the new boundaries are set. That combines to 76 seats, with Manitoba and Saskatchewan it comes to 104. Ontario alone provides enough seats to possibly form a minority government. Add in Quebec’s 78 seats and you have an incredibly strong majority government of 199 seats of 338 in Central Canada.
The Globe and Mail, and the other newspapers I read are based out of Toronto, so their Ontario-centric view is not surprising. Population has been moving west in Canada since before Confederation, just as when Quebec and Atlantic Canada dwarfed Ontario/Upper Canada. What does concern me is what this transformation might mean for Quebec. In the twentieth century Quebec consistently held about a quarter of Canada’s population. If the relative position of Quebec declines in Canada will the Quebecois continue to find value in Confederation? Will their voices be loud enough, and their interests heard? That’s a question 34.6 million Canadians will have to consider as we continue to grapple with the machine that is Canada.