Population growth in Canada’s rural areas, 2016 to 2021

Release date: February 9, 2022

Skip to text

Text begins

Introduction

Canada is one of the largest countries in the world at just under 9 million square killometers. Despite the vastness of the country, most Canadians live within a few urban centres located close to the United States border and along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River (Map 1).

Consequently, while rural areas comprise the vast majority of Canada’s landmass, they contain a small share of the total population.

For example, Canada’s three territories, which are largely rural, represent two-fifths (39.1%) of the country’s landmass but 0.3% of its population.

Demographics and the ethnocultural fabric of rural regions are quite varied. This presents challenges when planning and delivering public services across the country, such as ensuring equal access to health care, labour opportunities and infrastructure.

This article reports differences in recent population growth in rural Canada using 2021 Census data.

Start of text box 1

Did you know?

Readers will find more results on population counts and growth among urban areas of the country such as large metropolitan centres and their downtowns, small towns, and municipalities in the other documents released today (see Daily articles titled “Canada tops G7 growth despite COVID” and “Canada’s large urban centres continue to grow and spread” as well as the Census in brief article titled “Canada’s fastest growing and decreasing municipalities from 2016 to 2021”).

Other data releases from the 2021 Census will continue to provide a portrait of rural regions of the country, many of them being the home of Indigenous peoples.

End of text box 1

Map 1 Rural and urban areas in Canada, 2021

Map 1 Rural and urban areas in Canada, 2021

Description for Map 1

The title of the map is "Rural and urban areas in Canada, 2021".

This map shows the extent of urban areas across Canada in 2021. Urban areas are shown in green while rural areas are shown in grey.

Less than one in five Canadians live in a rural area

Canada’s ruralNote 1 population increased by 26,609 people (+0.4%) from 2016 to reach 6.6 million in 2021. However, the rural population growth rate was fifteen times slower compared with urban areas in Canada (+6.3%).  Rural areas have less than 1,000 people and a population density of fewer than 400 persons per square kilometre.

Because of these differences in population growth, the share of the population living in rural areas decreased from 18.7% in 2016 to 17.8% in 2021.

The combination of strong immigration levels and the fact that most immigrants settle in large urban areas explains why the population of Canada’s urban areas is increasing at a faster pace than rural areas.

Rural population growing at the fastest pace in Nunavut, largest decline in Newfoundland and Labrador

As was the case at the national level, the population of urban areas grew at a faster pace than in rural areas in every province and territory, with the exception of Nunavut. For example, in British Columbia, the population living in urban areas grew by 8.7% compared with a 0.5% increase in rural areas.

However, Table 1 shows that the absolute number of people living in rural areas has increased in most provinces and territories.

From 2016 to 2021, rural population increased at the fastest pace in Nunavut (+10.3%) and Prince Edward Island (+6.2%).

Conversely, the rural population declined in Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and New Brunswick (Table 1).

Differences in internal migration patterns often explain the varying degrees of rural population growth in the country. For example, from 2016 to 2021, rural population growth in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec was driven by intraprovincial migration. Rural areas within British Columbia also benefited from positive interprovincial migration as did Nova Scotia. Meanwhile rural areas in Saskatchewan and Alberta experienced population losses to intraprovincial migration as well as interprovincial migration during this period.

Table 1
Rural population and growth rate (2016 to 2021)
Table summary
This table displays the results of Rural population and growth rate (2016 to 2021) Rural population in 2016, Rural population in 2021, Rural population growth, 2016 to 2021 and Urban population growth, 2016 to 2021, calculated using number and percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Rural population in 2016 Rural population in 2021 Rural population growth, 2016 to 2021 Urban population growth, 2016 to 2021
number percentage
Canada 6,575,373 6,601,982 0.4 6.3
Newfoundland and Labrador 217,988 204,086 -6.4 1.6
Prince Edward Island 78,498 83,350 6.2 10.2
Nova Scotia 393,629 398,776 1.3 7.7
New Brunswick 380,919 380,490 -0.1 7.9
Quebec 1,591,306 1,614,878 1.5 4.8
Ontario 1,857,981 1,888,658 1.7 6.4
Manitoba 343,136 338,894 -1.2 7.3
Saskatchewan 364,848 358,716 -1.7 5.5
Alberta 667,803 650,027 -2.7 6.3
British Columbia 631,776 634,976 0.5 8.7
Yukon 14,142 14,627 3.4 17.8
Northwest Territories 15,003 14,267 -4.9 0.1
Nunavut 18,344 20,237 10.3 -5.6

The share of Canadians living in rural areas also varies greatly by province or territory.

The Atlantic provinces have the highest share of people living in rural areas followed by Manitoba and Saskatchewan, while Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia have much lower shares of residents living in a rural area.

Chart 1 shows a longer term trend from 2011 to 2021, where the proportion of Canadians living in rural areas decreased, with the exception of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nunavut.

Chart 1 Proportion of population living in rural areas 2011, 2016 and 2021

Data table for Chart 1
Data table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data table for Chart 1 2011, 2016 and 2021, calculated using percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
2011 2016 2021
percentage
Canada 18.9 18.7 17.8
Newfoundland and Labrador 40.6 41.9 40.0
Prince Edward Island 53.3 54.9 54.0
Nova Scotia 43.4 42.6 41.1
New Brunswick 47.5 51.0 49.1
Quebec 19.4 19.5 19.0
Ontario 14.1 13.8 13.3
Manitoba 27.6 26.8 25.3
Saskatchewan 33.2 33.2 31.7
Alberta 16.9 16.4 15.2
British Columbia 13.8 13.6 12.7
Yukon 39.3 39.4 36.4
Northwest Territories 40.8 35.9 34.7
Nunavut 51.8 51.0 54.9

Moreover, each of the three territories has a much higher proportion of their population living in rural areas than the national average.

The proportion of the population living in rural areas has remained relatively stable in Yukon and Nunavut since 2011. However, there has been a decrease in the rural population of the Northwest Territories since 2011, caused by migration losses to Yellowknife and other provinces and territories.

Rural population of Canada growing faster than in other G7 countries

When compared with other countries in the G7, Canada’s rural population grew the fastest (+0.4%) from 2016 to 2021 (Table 2).

In fact, Canada and Germany (+0.1%) were the only G7 countries with positive rural population growth rates.

Although Canada has the highest rural population growth rate among the G7, it has the fourth-lowest share of its population living in rural areas (17.8%) compared with other G7 countries, following Japan (8.2%), the United Kingdom (16.1%) and the United States (17.3%).

Table 2
Growth rate (2016-2020Table 2 Note 1) and proportion of the rural populationTable 2 Note 2 (2020Table 2 Note 1) in G7 countries
Table summary
This table displays the results of Growth rate (2016-2020) and proportion of the rural population (2020) in G7 countries. The information is grouped by Country (appearing as row headers), Growth rate and Proportion of population, calculated using percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Country Growth rate Proportion of population
percentage
Japan -4.7 8.2
United Kingdom -3.6 16.1
United States -2.5 17.3
Canada 0.4 17.8
France -4.3 19.0
Germany 0.1 22.5
Italy -5.6 29.0

Start of text box 2

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on population growth in rural Canada

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the lives of Canadians, although the impacts have not been equal across the country. Different areas and segments of society have felt the effects more than others throughout the course of the pandemic. For example, Canadians living in remote areas, which are often rural, were identified as a high priority group during the vaccination campaign because their locations presented unique challenges for the delivery and administration of the vaccine.

The pandemic has impacted the population dynamics of rural areas primarily through the rapid rise of telework, an increased desire for low density communities, and a decline in international migration.

The rapid shift toward telework, which occurred during the pandemic, has allowed people to seek more affordable housing markets in suburban or rural areas. Additionally, telework arrangements now allow many individuals who currently live in rural areas to access urban job markets without relocating. Both of these changes can contribute to positive rural population growth. Since March 2020, 20% to 40% of the labour force has been engaged in telework, up from 5.7% in February 2020 just prior to the pandemicNote 2.

Stay-at-home advisories issued during the pandemic may have also increased the desirability of low-density neighbourhoods featuring backyards and abundant public green space. Across the country, individuals seeking to leave higher density urban areas have relocated to suburban and rural areas adjacent to urban centres.

Data from Statistics Canada’s Demographic Estimates Program have revealed that during the 2020/2021 period, many census divisions with a considerable share of rural lands near large urban centres have experienced population growth greater than the previous five-year average. For example, the census divisions of L’Assomption, Joliette, Marguerite-D’Youville, Mirabel, and Roussillon, outside of Montréal each experienced population growth greater than the previous five-year average. The distinct population growth in these areas is in part driven by elevated internal migration rates. This kind of migration is not a new phenomenon, but may have been accelerated by the pandemic. Regardless, these migration patterns, observed in the demographic estimates program and in census data, ultimately contribute to positive rural population growth.

The share of Canadians living in rural areas has been steadily declining since 1867. In recent years, this has been driven primarily by more immigrants settling in urban areas, resulting in faster population growth there compared with rural areas. Record-low international migration levels have slowed the urban growth rate and hence moderated the decline in the share of Canadians living in a rural area.

Annual data from Statistics Canada’s Demographic Estimates Program provide insight on population trends more frequently than the census. Because these data complement each other, they allow Statistics Canada to continue to monitor the effect of COVID-19 on the Canadian population, including in rural communities between censuses.

To ease access to statistics focused on Canada's rural communities and regions, Statistics Canada has recently developed the Rural Canada Statistics Portal.

End of text box 2

Rural areas are not all alike

While meaningful, dividing Canada’s landmass into rural and urban areas alone provides an incomplete portrait of the national population.

On the one hand, there are areas classified as rural within every census metropolitan area (CMA) nationally, including Canada’s largest CMA of Toronto. On the other hand, many urbanized areas are found in remote locations (see Map 1) far from other urban centres.

For example, the census agglomerations of Yellowknife (Northwest Territories), Prince Rupert (British Columbia) and Thompson (Manitoba) all have a population of more than 10,000 inhabitants but are located in relatively remote parts of the country.

To facilitate the analysis of demographic trends in rural and urban areas of Canada, an index of remoteness classifies municipalities (census subdivisions) into five groups, ranging from least to most remote (more information about how remoteness is defined can be found in the text box).

Map 2 Rural and urban areas within the Toronto census metropolitan area in Canada, 2021

Map 2 Rural and  urban areas within the Toronto census metropolitan area in Canada, 2021

Description for Map 2

The title of the map is "Rural and urban areas within the Toronto census metropolitan area in Canada, 2021".

This map shows the extent of urban areas within and around the Toronto census metropolitan area in 2021. Urban areas are shown in green while rural areas are shown in grey.

Start of text box 3

Classification of Canadian municipalities according to the index of remoteness

Statistics Canada has developed an index of remoteness that ranges from 0 (least remote) to 1 (most remote) for every municipality (census subdivision) in Canada. This index is useful to help nuance population growth trends within rural areas of the countryNote 3.

In this article, the index is used to classify municipalities into five broad groups ranging from least to most remote (Table 3). The index of remoteness assigns a value to each municipality based on geographic proximity to urban areas (service and population centres) and on the population size of those urban areas. Remoteness is an important determinant of socioeconomic and health outcomes and is consequently an essential indicator for delivery of policies and programs.

Table 3
Remoteness classes grouped by remoteness index values
Table summary
This table displays the results of Remoteness classes grouped by remoteness index values. The information is grouped by Remoteness class (appearing as row headers), Index of remoteness, calculated using number units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Remoteness class Index of remoteness
number
Least remote 0-0.15
Less remote 0.15-0.2889
Moderately remote 0.2889-0.3898
More remote 0.3898-0.5532
Most remote 0.5532-1

This classification was used on the basis of an existing literature review (see Developing Meaningful Categories for Distinguishing Levels of Remoteness in Canada).

Readers should also note that nearly all municipalities within the three territories are classified as either most remote or more remote, according to Statistics Canada’s index of remoteness.

Only Whitehorse (the territorial capital of Yukon) is classified as moderately remote in Yukon, and no other municipalities of this territory are classified as least remote or less remote.

The other two territorial capitals of Yellowknife (Northwest Territories) and Iqaluit (Nunavut) are classified as more remote.

End of text box 3

Map 3 Classification of Canadian municipalities according to the index of remoteness, 2021

Map 3 Classification  of Canadian municipalities according to the index of remoteness, 2021

Description for Map 3

The title of the map is "Remoteness Zones of Canada 2021".

This map displays census subdivisions across Canada, classified into five remoteness zones based on their index of remoteness. The five classes are least remote, less remote, moderately remote, more remote and most remote. Each class is colored a shade of purple, least remote areas are the darkest shade of purple while most remote areas are the lightest shade of purple. An additional class colored light grey represents areas for which an index of remoteness is not available.

According to this classification, most Canadians (88.0%) live in municipalities classified as the least remote or less remote (dark purple on Map 3). However, these municipalities make up only 6.1% of Canada’s landmass.

Notably, over half of the people living within municipalities identified as Indigenous communitiesNote 4 live in the most remote or more remote areas of Canada, compared with less than 5% for Canadians living in municipalities that are not Indigenous communities.

These patterns show the extent of differences in the geographic distribution of some population groups, such as Indigenous peoples, compared with other groups. It is also well known that most immigrants settle in Canada’s largest urban centres, such as Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Ottawa–Gatineau, Calgary or Edmonton.

Least remote areas include Canada’s largest urban centres. Moreover, as of 2021, the population density among the least remote municipalities (212 people per square kilometre) is much higher than the national average of 4.2 people per square kilometre.

Conversely, the population living in municipalities classified as moderately remote, more remote or the most remote (lighter purple on Map 3) represented three-quarters (74.6%) of the landmass, but only 12.0% of the total population of Canada. An additional 19.3% of the Canadian landmass was unoccupied. Consequently, the average population density was very low in these areas, as low as 0.1 person per square kilometre in municipalities classified as the most remote.

Remote municipalities growing at a slower pace compared with the rest of the country

Remote communities often face higher-than-average food prices caused by elevated shipping costs associated with remoteness. Additionally, these areas have much more restricted access to many services, such as health care. These challenges often disproportionately affect Indigenous communities as they tend to be located in more remote locations.

On average, the population of municipalities classified as the least remote was growing at over twice the pace compared with moderately remote, more remote or most remote areas from 2016 to 2021 (Table 4).

Least and less remote areas are generally located close to or within large urban areas. Thus, the phenomenon of urban spread could be an element which explains the contrasting population growth rates between them and remote areas.

The population growth rate of the most remote municipalities (-2.7%) was negative while more remote municipalities showed no change from 2016 to 2021. The majority of those living in the most remote municipalities were living in one of the three territories, with only Northwest Territories (-1.7%) showing a population decline.

Table 4
Population indicators by remoteness class
Table summary
This table displays the results of Population indicators by remoteness class. The information is grouped by Remoteness class (appearing as row headers), CSD count, Percent of land area, Proportion of population 2021, Growth rate 2016-2021, Average population and Average population density (people/km2), calculated using number and percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Remoteness class CSD count Percent of land area Proportion of population 2021 Growth rate 2016-2021 Average population Average population density (people/km2)
number percentage number
Least remote 772 1.4 68.6 5.9 32,875 211.8
Less remote 1,100 4.8 19.4 5.4 6,514 17.1
Moderately remote 1,411 8.1 7.6 2.0 2,001 3.9
More remote 1,236 37.0 3.7 0.0 1,100 0.4
Most remote 604 29.4 0.7 -2.7 435 0.1
NATable 4 Note 1 38 19.3 Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable ... ...

The three territories are urbanizing like the rest of the country

Although most municipalities in the three territories are classified as remote, they are also home to urban centres, which are concentrated in 12 municipalities: Whitehorse in Yukon; Yellowknife, Hay River, Inuvik and Fort Smith in Northwest Territories; and Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Arviat, Baker Lake, Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk and Gjoa Haven in Nunavut.

Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Iqaluit are the three most populous municipalities in their respective territories. Combined, they accounted for almost half of the total population of the territories (47.4%). Whitehorse is home to 70.1% of Yukon’s population, while approximately half of the residents of Northwest Territories live in Yellowknife (49.5%) and one-fifth of the residents of Nunavut live in Iqaluit (20.2%).

The populations of Whitehorse (+12.4% versus +12.1%) and Yellowknife (+3.9% versus -1.7%) grew at a faster pace than the territory they are located within, while the population of Iqaluit (-4.0%) declined compared with Nunavut which increased by 2.5%.

Table 5 provides figures for population growth in other populous municipalities of the three territories. Despite five municipalities experiencing a population decline from 2016 to 2021, two municipalities showed minor change, and six were growing at a faster pace compared with rural areas, mostly because of internal migration. Just like the rest of Canada, the territories are becoming more urbanized.

Table 5
Population and population growth rate of populous municipalities, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, 2016 and 2021
Table summary
This table displays the results of Population and population growth rate of populous municipalities. The information is grouped by Territory (appearing as row headers), Municipalities, 2016 population, 2021 population and Growth rate 2016/2021, calculated using number and percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Territory Municipalities 2016 population 2021 population Growth rate 2016/2021
number percentage
Yukon Whitehorse 25,085 28,201 12.4
Northwest Territories Yellowknife 19,569 20,340 3.9
Hay River 3,528 3,169 -10.2
Inuvik 3,243 3,137 -3.3
Fort Smith 2,542 2,248 -11.6
Nunavut Iqaluit 7,740 7,429 -4.0
Rankin Inlet 2,842 2,975 4.7
Arviat 2,657 2,864 7.8
Baker Lake 2,069 2,061 -0.4
Cambridge Bay 1,766 1,760 -0.3
Kugluktuk 1,491 1,382 -7.3
Gjoa Haven 1,324 1,349 1.9

Upcoming releases will enrich the portrait of Canada’s diverse population including rural and remote areas by telling more about their socio-demographic composition. Taking into account the characteristics of these regions is key in continuing to deliver relevant public services across the country.

Acknowledgments

This report was prepared by, Karl Chastko, Patrick Charbonneau and Laurent Martel of Statistics Canada's Centre for Demography, with the assistance of other staff members in that centre, and the collaboration of staff members of Census Subject Matter Secretariat, Census Operations Division, Communications and Dissemination Branch.

Report a problem on this page

Is something not working? Is there information outdated? Can't find what you're looking for?

Please contact us and let us know how we can help you.

Privacy notice

Date modified: