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StatCan to release COVID-tinged census figure, experts warn against reading too deep


OTTAWA — For the last 40 years, Doug Norris has pored over detailed demographic data gleaned from every census, but even he admits what's coming will be unlike anything he has seen before.

Statistics Canada is scheduled to provide the first strokes Wednesday of its paint-by-numbers exercise that provides the most detailed picture of the Canadian population.

Last year's census, however, took place during a pandemic that limited immigration and shifted where Canadians decided to call home in the country.

It's why experts are warning anyone reading the statistics to do so with some caution.

The population snapshot might not reveal whether COVID-19 permanently changed previous trends, or caused a temporary blip.

"The pandemic may have had an impact in the last year or so, but it's going to be very difficult to sort out," said Norris, chief demographer at Environics Analytics who also spent 30 years at Statistics Canada.

"My overall view is that (there will be a) little fuzziness, but not tremendous. It'll still be pretty useful."

The census figures help planners and local officials decide where to build new schools, hospitals, roads and houses to keep up with expected population growth.

The population figures are used to calculate federal transfers to provinces to pay for health care, and to cities for infrastructure needs. This year, the census data will also be used as part of a once-a-decade exercise to redraw the boundaries of federal ridings.

Statistics Canada relies on the census to fine-tune a suite of other surveys like those about the state of the economy, making the census the "crown jewel" in the country's statistical infrastructure, said Geoff Bowlby, director general of the census program.

"It was a unique opportunity to produce some statistics that give us insights into the pandemic and how it affected Canadian life," Bowlby said.

"That is certainly top of mind as we're producing each of the analyses and releasing them over the course of the year."

The agency will detail how the population has grown over the last five years, where growth has been fastest and where it has declined, along with a dwelling count to see where homes have been built.

The population is expected to have flatlined over the last two years as fewer immigrants were let in to a country that has relied on newcomers for growth, particularly as the population ages.

"We are dependent on immigration, for the growth of the non-older population, and it has certainly slowed in the last two years prior to the census," said Mark Rosenberg, Canada Research Chair in Development Studies at Queen's University.

"That likely means that, in relative terms, the older population is growing even faster than it would have grown relative to the other age groups if there had been no COVID."

Migration within the country could also be affected by the pandemic.

Michael Haan, an associate professor at Western University's sociology department, noted movements out of major urban centres to smaller communities as people sought larger houses because many worked from home, as well as interprovincial migration — particularly in usually fast-growing Alberta — as oil prices dropped.

"Not to talk already about the 2026 census, but it would be interesting to contrast what's happening in 2021 to 2026 because that will give us a sense of the extent to which all of these motions and movements were temporary versus permanent," Haan said.

Even while temporary, the movements could result in a rural renaissance of sorts depending on the location.

Ashleigh Weeden, a doctoral candidate in rural studies at the University of Guelph, said rural population growth has been uneven, with locations closer to large cities growing while places farther away are in decline.

She said the census data might give the country an opportunity to think about how to develop communities regardless of location, rather than look at development through a rural or urban lens. 

"Hopefully, the census data shows us a little bit about where people are moving."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2022.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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