Torontonian-turned-Westerner Jay Palter pictured with his kids Ella Palter and Ben Palter in a park near their home in Edmonton.

OTTAWA – The population in Western Canada has finally surpassed that on the other side of Ontario – a trend that has been decades in the making, but was compounded by the recent recession.

The first barrage of data from the 2011 census, released Wednesday, showed that there were 33.5 million people living in Canada in May of last year – and that for the first time ever, more of them are living west of Ontario than in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

At the national level, there was a healthy 5.9 per cent surge in population from the previous census in 2006, giving Canada the fastest growth pace of all the countries in the G8.

While other countries are struggling to maintain their populations, Canada’s is actually picking up speed.

Within the country’s borders, however, the pace is far from uniform.

Ontario is still an axis. It’s by far the most populous province, with 38.4 per cent of the population. But Ontario’s rate of growth continues to slow as immigrants and locals alike set their sights elsewhere.

Now, the West claims a 30.7 per cent share of the total, compared to 30.6 per cent in Quebec and the Maritimes.

Ontario “is still the largest province, but the shift in the centre of gravity to the West is important,” said demographer Frank Trovato of the University of Alberta, editor of Canadian Studies in Population.

Every single region is gaining residents because of immigration, and parts of eastern Canada have seen a startling turnaround because of aggressive immigrant recruitment. Newfoundland and Labrador is no longer shrinking, and both Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick have picked up considerable speed.

But even with rising immigration in the Atlantic provinces, the pace of growth east of the Ottawa River is still dramatically below the national average, while the West – especially Alberta – is in full gallop. Saskatchewan has flipped from a period of decline to above-average expansion in just half a decade.

Statistics Canada says the West has proven particularly attractive to newcomers. At the same time, the region is also seeing somewhat higher fertility and is luring many residents from other parts of the country.

“It does create its own momentum,” said Don McIver, director of research at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

What’s clear is that the recession turned a slow generational population drift to the West into a quick march.

There was a push. The eastern provinces – where employment and aging have been serious challenges for decades – were pounded by the global recession of 2008. Forestry and manufacturing, already in decline, crumbled.

And there was also a pull. Lured by the promise of jobs and wealth linked to the oilpatch, families across Canada and from around the world have upped stakes and settled in the Prairies.

The fastest growing metropolitan areas were both in Alberta – Calgary and Edmonton – while the only metropolitan areas to show a decline were both in Ontario: Windsor, an auto manufacturing centre, and forestry-based Thunder Bay.

The allure of the West is not just oil prices, however. It’s also trade routes, said Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation.

As the centre of the global economy has shifted from Europe and the United States to Asia, Gibbins said, Canada’s Pacific trade routes from the West Coast have become more important that the Atlantic trade routes in the East.

“That’s just part of the Canadian reality.”

The dynamic feeds on itself. The West is attracting more mobile young people who in turn have more babies and make for a vibrant society that catches the eye of immigrants. Fertility rates in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba are tracking much higher than the national average, said Trovato.

The East, on the other hand, is aging, its fertility rate is tracking well below the replacement rate, towns are losing their raison-d’etre, and mobile young people are looking elsewhere for opportunity.

Maritime provincial governments are working hard to bring in fresh blood from abroad, but immigrants are often second-guessing their chosen destinations, and head back home or head West, said McIver.

With population comes power, prosperity and culture. And while Ontario still holds the indisputable title of largest province, momentum carries great significance.

“As in sports, momentum counts for a lot,” said Gibbins.

The growing political influence of the West has already been proven by the re-election of Calgary-based Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and in the new seat distribution of the House of Commons. Business leadership is shifting West too, with Toronto ceding ground to Calgary and Vancouver.

“All economic eyes in the past were very much on how well Toronto was doing,” Gibbins said. “That’s changing…. Toronto is a second thought.”

The same economic thrust is at work within Canada’s regions, with big cities gaining relentlessly over small towns and rural areas, analysts say.

Large metropolitan areas ballooned by 7.4 per cent between 2006 and 2011, far above the national average of 5.9.

“Seven in 10 Canadians live in these large metropolitan areas, and that’s increasing in each census,” said Statistics Canada’s Jane Badets, director general of social and demographic statistics.

The areas around the three largest cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver – now claim 35 per cent of the country’s total population.

Smaller towns only grew by 4.2 per cent over the census period. And rural areas stalled, showing only a 1.7 per cent expansion.

Young job-seekers in small towns see their local mill closing down and job opportunities drying up, so they move to the nearest city. That’s why Halifax grew at a healthy 4.7 per cent clip over five years, while Nova Scotia’s population is stagnant, said McIver.

“Nearly every county is in decline except Halifax,” he said.

Federal and provincial regional development programs have done very little to reverse the tug of the city, he added.

“You can’t create jobs where they’re not economically viable. I think it’s unwise to put the focus on preventing people from making the economic advance that they would if they moved.”

Similarly, the downtown cores of Vancouver and Toronto are expanding and flourishing, while the older suburbs are becoming havens for poverty, said Glenn Miller, vice-president of education and research at the Canadian Urban Institute.

“The concern is that the attractive parts are going to continue to get more attractive, which puts pressure on them. And it becomes harder to attract investment to the less attractive parts. And this has social implications,” Miller said.

But too much population growth has put intense pressure on real estate and social programs in Vancouver and Victoria, and caused congestion in Toronto, he added.

“What you hope for is a balance.”

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