A reduction in population numbers from the most recent federal census is adding up to frustration for Lac La Biche County officials, and could subtract dollars from the municipality's accounts.The municipality is currently in the process of a formal appeal against the 2021 Statistics Canada federal census.
New census numbers show a combined population drop of about 9 per cent in the hamlets of Lac La Biche and Plamondon, and within rural Lac La Biche County. The 2021 population number is 11,096, a drop of almost 1,000 people from 12,066 recorded in the 2016 federal count.
Those kinds of numbers can reflect poorly on possible economic development, government funding and the overall perception of the community, says Lac La Biche County Mayor Paul Reutov. He's not happy with the new federal numbers, and wants to conduct a local census.
"I think our own census is very important, and how the County counts and the area we capture is very important," Reutov says.
Money follows numbers
For a local census to be official, however, it must be recognized by the provincial government — where most of the municipality's per-person grant funding comes from. Currently, Lac La Biche County administrators are waiting for provincial regulators to approve locally-sourced census results.
While the appeal is in progress, and while waiting for provincial approvals, the mayor is ready to go ahead with a local count.
"I question the numbers — and I'd like to validate the numbers," he said. "We should do one regardless."
The recently released Statistics Canada census takes in numbers from 2021, replacing the previous tabulations from 2016. In 2016 the population within the municipal boundaries of Lac La Biche County was pegged at 8,330. The 2021 number is 7,673 — a 7.9 per cent drop. The hamlet of Lac La Biche dropped from 3,320 in 2016 to 3,120 in the 2021 federal census, a six percent reduction. The hamlet of Plamondon recorded a 27.2 per cent population reduction in the latest federal figures, going from 416 people in 2016 to 303 in 2021.
Lac La Biche County's Chief Administrative Officer Dan Small says each person counted is directly linked to a formula that results in more or less dollars for the municipality.
"The MSI (Municipal Sustainability Initiative,) and various other programs, the library program, the (Canada-Community) Building program... and others ... are based on per capita ... and in our experience, the reason we do the census is that every person we find is worth between 200 and 250 bucks for he county... It's good to have good numbers for other uses," said Small.
The cost to conduct a local census is budgeted at $80,000.
Small said the opportunity to count more residents would have to be based on the balance of cost and reward. At the same time, he predicts that a local census would likely find more people that the wider-focused Statistics Canada survey. He said 'shadow populations' of industrial or commercial workers in the area staying in rural camps may have been missed in the federal count, and could add significant numbers to the local count.
"We've got shadow populations in camps outside of the town...so we are hoping for the rural (numbers) to change on this," Small said. "The Stats Can census ... they are probably good for Canada-wide to estimate general populations, but not as good at estimating a local population. I think if we have a locally-run census, I think we do a better job for our area within Lac La Biche County."
Bonnyville up, St. Paul up, Cold Lake up
While the new Statistics Canada numbers show reductions in the Lac La Biche area, numbers for Lakeland region overall show static levels of growth, or even slight increases in population for most of the larger centres. The town of Bonnyville is showing a seven per cent increase in 2021 with 6,404 people recorded compared to 5,975 in 2016. The MD of Bonnyville saw a slight increase in 2021 — up 1.2 per cent — with 12,897 people compared to 12,745 in the 2016 count. The city of Cold Lake is up 4.6 per cent according to the most recent Stats Can numbers, rising 14,976 to 15,66167 over the last five years. St. Paul County is up 4.5 per cent, and the Town of St. Paul is up slightly more than half a per cent. Like Lac La Biche and Plamondon, the communities of Elk Point and Ashmont also saw reductions in numbers over the last five years; Elk Point is down 3.7 per cent to 1,399 people from 1,452 in 2016, and Ashmont is down six per cent, going form 133 to 125 people.
The reductions in rural populations isn't restricted to just a few communities in the Lakeland region. The downward slide of populations is more widespread to the west of Lac La Biche County. The Stats Can census shows Atmore is down 71 percent in 2021, going from 35 residents to 10. Grassland is down 32 per cent in population, going from 68 to 46 residents, a similar percentage drop is shown for Colinton, dropping from 254 residents in 2016 to 169 in the 2021 tabulation. Athabasca County is showing an 11.6 per cent drop in population in 2021, going from 7,869 to 6,959.
Cities way up
The reductions are part of a province-wide trend shown in the latest census, growing the gap between urban and rural populations.
The city of Edmonton has seen an 8.3 percent increase — or about 70,000 people — in its population since 2015, going from 933,088 to 1.011 million in 2021. The City of Calgary has seen a similar increase, going up 5.5 per cent from 1.239 million in 2015 to 1.306 million in 2021.
The federally-operated data gathering project takes place every five years.
Lac La Biche County councillors have yet to make an official decision to carry out their own census, but Reutov says he would like to see one conducted by early spring of the new year.
A municipal survey was conducted by Lac La Biche County officials in 2019. That study presented population numbers of 8,654 residents and 982 shadow population residents for a total of 9,636. That survey was completed with online, door-to-door and administrative centre assistance responses that municipal officials say reached more than 98 per cent of municipal addresses. The 2019 survey was said to have mirrored numbers from the 2016 municipal survey.
Since 2019, provincial officials have halted the use of local, municipal surveys until the process has been reviewed.