Winnipeg barely added any people last year, as the pandemic accelerated a population slowdown that began three years before the emergence of COVID-19.
Population estimates published by Statistics Canada last week show the Winnipeg Census Metropolitan Area — the city and 12 neighbouring municipalities — grew by only 1,567 people, or 0.2 per cent between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021.
The Winnipeg metro area’s population was estimated at 852,778 on Canada Day. The population of the city itself was pegged at 757,854. That represented a tiny decline of 354 people over the previous year.
While a number of other metro areas, including Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, also lost people last year, Winnipeg’s slowdown started before the pandemic.
The growth rate in the Winnipeg CMA has been sliding since 2016-17, when the region experienced robust annual growth of two per cent.
Academics are at a loss to explain why the growth rate started slowing five years ago.
“I’m at a loss to name a single reason for this,” said Jared Wesley, a University of Alberta political scientist who left Winnipeg for Edmonton in 2011.
“I don’t see a a common event or a policy or anything that led to this directly. It just seems like more people are wanting to leave Winnipeg.”
StatsCan data bears out Wesley’s hunch. During the 12 months ending on July 1, the Winnipeg area experienced a net loss of 7,466 people to other provinces.
That was enough to almost cancel out international immigration to Winnipeg, as well as births and people moving to the city from elsewhere in Manitoba.
“The flow of international in-migration largely has been offset by domestic outmigration,” said University of Winnipeg economist Philippe Cyrenne. “What is interesting is that it is relative employment opportunities that matter.”
People who left the Winnipeg area last year for other provinces say jobs were the main draw.
Christine Lee moved to Calgary last May when her partner got the chance to earn more money working on luxury cars, which are more numerous in Alberta.
“There’s just more opportunity for growth, income and just life,” said Lee, who added Calgary has roughly the same cost of living that Winnipeg does — but with less social disparity.
“They need to help their citizens. I mean, you drive down Portage Avenue last winter and every single bus shelter had someone living in it.”
Lauren Konrad, who left Winnipeg last year for a fundraising job at a Vancouver private school, said she did not have the same opportunities for career advancement in Winnipeg.
“I was finding it difficult to find that next step in Winnipeg,” said Konrad, adding she also simply wanted a change.
“I was happy to take another position with a different school, and also have the opportunity to explore another province in the middle of a pandemic, where we’re not traveling.”
Konrad had spent most of her life in Winnipeg. Lee had lived in Manitoba her entire life.
Cyrenne said more recent arrivals may also be lured away.
“Winnipeg might have been their initial stop, but more attractive cities may be considered,” he said. “Family reunification would result in more immigrants staying. Economic-class immigrants are more mobile.”
The province sees the slow growth in its largest economic centre as a drag on the economy.
“With a low unemployment rate, there is little excess capacity in the labour force at this time,” Manitoba Finance said in a statement. “Also, without population growth, as the population ages, there are less working-age Manitobans.”
City of Winnipeg officials blamed the stagnation on the pandemic, sidestepping the fact Winnipeg’s population growth began slowing in 2016-17.
“While it’s too early to predict when it might occur, we do expect that population growth trends in Winnipeg will return to pre-pandemic levels,” city economist Tyler Markowsky said in a statement.
Mayor Brian Bowman’s office insisted the city is still growing and said in a statement the metropolitan area will eventually reach a million people.
Wesley said in order for Winnipeg to grow, the city has to become more attractive to people who don’t want long commutes between their homes and workplaces.
“If I’m the Mayor of Winnipeg, I would start to think about what would make Winnipeg a liveable city, a place where people want to want to come,” Wesley said.
Winnipeg will get a more precise picture of its population soon. The results of Statistics Canada’s 2021 census are slated to be released on Feb. 9.
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