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By: Alex Carrick on April 7th, 2017

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A Remarkable Tale of Working-Age Male Migration in Canada

Economic News

There’s a remarkable tale to be told, through the use of graphs, about working-age male mobility in Canada.


It’s a story with one clear winner among the ten provinces, a good second-place finisher and numerous ‘also-rans’.

It unfolds through an examination of net interprovincial migration numbers.

Net interprovincial migration is in-migration from other provinces to one specific province minus out-migration from that same specific province to other provinces. As a concept, it is quite separate from net foreign migration (i.e., immigration less emigration.)

The sum of net interprovincial migration for Canada as a whole in any given year is ‘0’.

Graphs 1 through 10 show the history of net interprovincial migration numbers, 1971-1972 to 2015-2016, for all ten provinces. The reason for the unusual ‘year’ designations (e.g., 71/72) is that annual population counts, based on census surveys, have traditionally been as of July 1st and calendar periods covered have run from July 1 to June 30.

The background data is derived from Cansim Table 051-0012. Cansim is Statistics Canada’s readily-accessible and freely-available online database.

In a moment, I’ll begin moving across the country from east to west, but first I want to caution readers to pay attention not only to the pattern presented by the columns/bars in the charts (i.e., clustered above or below zero), but also the scale of the vertical axes. For some of the smaller provinces (i.e., based on population counts), the patterns of net interprovincial migration, while appearing dramatic, may not involve many people.

The defined working age of the labour force is 15 to 64, but the desire of older workers to pick up and leave the domicile where they have grown comfortable is muted. Therefore, the statistics in the charts are for males aged 15 to 49, leaving out the 50-to-64-year-old cohort.

This exercise sheds a spotlight on the pool of young to middle-aged males prepared to live a nomadic lifestyle in search of work. The job to be found at the end of the quest has often been at the site of a new mega resource project.

During the past 45 years, from 71/72 to 15/16, Newfoundland and Labrador’s net interprovincial migration (Chart 1) has managed only five pluses. Since 82/83, there has been just one positive outcome, in 09/10, although 08/09’s figure was minimally negative.

It should be added, however, that since the beginning of the Great Recession in 08/09, Newfoundland and Labrador’s outflow of male workers has been more restrained than in the past. World trade has been sluggish for almost a decade, causing commodity prices to soften and limiting the job opportunities from mega construction projects in other resource-dependent provinces (e.g., Alberta).

Chart 1: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
Newfoundland and Labrador
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Prince Edward Island (Chart 2) has had a mixed record in net interprovincial migration. From 72/73 until 95/96, PEI had 10 ‘up’ years versus 14 ‘down’ years. But the province has not registered another positive result in the past 25 years. Staying mindful of the scale of the y-axis, it should be noted that the net number of people moving to and from PEI has been slight.

Chart 2: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
Prince Edward Island
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Nova Scotia had eight gains in the net interprovincial migration of males aged 15 to 49 in the first 14 years of the period covered in Chart 3, but it has had none in the 31 subsequent years. The largest net outflow (nearly -3,000) was recorded in 06/07.

Chart 3: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
Nova Scotia
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

New Brunswick’s results (Chart 4) bear a close resemblance to those of Nova Scotia. There were early gains, but very little in the way of increases – in fact, only the one tiny jog upwards in 90/91 − since 83/84.

Chart 4: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
New Brunswick
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

But as poor as the performances of net interprovincial migration have been on the East Coast, they pale beside what has occurred in Quebec (Chart 5). Throughout the 45 years from 71/72 to 15/16, there has not been one year in which ‘la belle province’ has registered an increase. The best years were in 02/03 and 03/04 when in-migration was about a match for out-migration.

At least the net declines for Quebec in the last several decades have not been as severe as in the 1970s and early 1980’s. Nevertheless, Chart 5 offers a rather bleak commentary on the job and, as a by-product, lifestyle opportunities in Quebec that have caused so many more men to depart than to arrive.

Chart 5: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Ontario’s pattern of net interprovincial migration for males aged 15 to 49 (Chart 6) has been more diverse that for the other provinces. There were periods of substantial net advances in the 1980s and again as the 20th century transitioned into the 21st, although another 13 years had to pass after 02/03 before there was another uptick in 15/16.

The vertical scale of the y-axis for Ontario has a wider amplitude (i.e., from -20,000 to +25,000) than for any other province. Ontario’s best year for arrivals versus departures was in 86/87, at nearly +20,000. More recently, Ontario has been counting on high levels of foreign immigration to maintain its decent year-over-year advances in total population.

Chart 6: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

Manitoba (Chart 7) has had no interprovincial migration gains, for males aged 15 to 49, since 84/85. Saskatchewan (Chart 8) was mainly in deficit – with severe slides in excess of -6,000 in 71/72, 88/89 and 89/90 – until 07/08. During the latest nine years, however, there has been increasing recognition of the great bounty of natural assets possessed by Saskatchewan in the energy (oil and natural gas), mining (uranium and potash) and agricultural sectors.

The current hush in the resources development scene in the province is temporary. There may have been small out-migrations of male workers in 14/15 and 15/16, but another breakthrough in job creation is easy to imagine a couple of years from now. Keystone XL pipeline construction may be the pilot light that turns the furnace back on.

Chart 7: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.
Chart 8: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.

For most of the provinces covered so far, deficits in interprovincial migration have far exceeded surpluses. But interprovincial migration country-wide is a ‘zero sum game’ in each and every year. There must have been some pretty substantial net increases somewhere else. This is where Charts 9 and 10 enter the narrative as heroes of the story.

They come to the rescue. They are the flip sides of most of the other graphs.

Let’s skip over Alberta (Chart 9) in favor of British Columbia (Chart 10) for the moment. B.C. has been the nation’s second biggest winner in the working-age male interprovincial migration sweepstakes. The province’s most prominent gains occurred during the ten years from 87/88 to 96/97. There were side-by-side twin peaks of nearly +15,000 in 92/93 and 93/94.

From 87/88 to 96/97 was also when there was a surge of immigrant arrivals in B.C. Many citizens of Hong Kong, aware that Britain would be handing over responsibility for the colony to communist China in July 1997, chose to move to Canada’s West Coast.

B.C.’s annual average population growth from 87/88 to 96/97 (for both sexes and all ages) was +2.6%, or twice as fast as the +1.3% Canada-wide rate during the same time frame.

And now for the ‘heavyweight’ champion. Alberta (Chart 9) has experienced extraordinary strength in the net interprovincial migration of males aged 15 to 49. The first boom, reaching above +20,000 in 80/81, followed upon the heels of OPEC initially asserting its supply-restricting power in 1973. At that time, the price of crude oil shot up by more than tenfold.

Alberta, as a well-known alternative source of fossil fuels, was inundated with job-seekers sure that the good times would soon roll. A badly-received National Energy Policy (NEP), initiated by a different Trudeau Prime Minister (i.e., the father of Justin), plus hyperinflation, caused a reversal in net interprovincial migration in the 80s and left it at a standstill in the early 90s.

Furthermore, it wasn’t until the mid-90s that there were the advances in technology needed to render Oil Sands production more cost effective. The steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) methodology employed at some extraction sites has proven to be one major step forward.

From 96/97 on, and even during the Great Recession, Alberta has never looked back with respect to its interprovincial migration gains among male workers aged 15 to 49. Over the past 20 years, Alberta’s annual average population growth (including both sexes and all ages) has been +2.2% compared with +1.0% for Canada as a whole.

I’m old enough to remember the release of the college spring break movie that followed Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Dolores Hart as they traveled to “Where the Boys Are”. In the U.S., at that time, it was Fort Lauderdale.

In Canada, throughout much of the past 20 years, and especially during construction season, it’s been the Oil Sands of Alberta.

Chart 9: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.
Chart 10: Interprovincial Migration − Males Aged 15 to 49
British Columbia
Data source: Cansim Table 051-0012.
Chart: ConstructConnect.