Halifax Population Growth in the Time of COVID-19

Posted: February 3, 2021

Ian Munro

Chief Economist
Halifax Partnership

Population growth has been a key objective for our city since my arrival at the Halifax Partnership in early 2016. Since then, I have had the good fortune to report on annual population growth statistics that consistently fell in the “great news” category.

Approximately one year ago Statistics Canada issued its annual population estimates as of July 1, 2019, and for the fourth consecutive year Halifax had experienced record growth in both absolute and percentage terms, driven by continued increases in immigration.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

We donned masks (and pyjamas), retreated to our homes, and connected to work and school through our laptops. Depending on their circumstances, businesses adapted to changed realities, pivoted to new opportunities, or hunkered down in survival mode – where some remain. Borders tightened and travel flows dwindled to mere trickles.

All of this might have led to the expectation that population growth would succumb to a steep drop-off. However, that is not the case.

In mid-January, population estimates for July 1, 2020 – well into the pandemic period – were released. Halifax reached a new population record of 448,544. While the annual growth figure was lower than in the prior year, the increase of 9,015 people was still the second-highest on record.

Source: Statistics Canada, Annual Demographic Estimates, Table 17-10-0135-01

Similarly, the level of net international migration was lower than the year before, but it still ranked as the second-highest annual figure on record as we welcomed 5,751 arrivals from beyond Canada’s borders.

Source: Statistics Canada, Annual Demographic Estimates, Table 17-10-0136-01

Interprovincial migration, the second-largest source of new Halifax residents since 2016, followed a similar pattern with a figure of 1,584 (a close runner-up to the prior year’s record of 1,602).

However, movements of people to Halifax from elsewhere in Nova Scotia have followed a different path, dropping to 876, the lowest figure we have seen since 2006.

When these intraprovincial movements are broken down into age groupings we see that annual changes are very much driven by younger adults – those who are beginning post-secondary education and then establishing careers. Following a sharp rise in migration for this group to Halifax between the 2003-2009 period, the trend has reversed over the past decade. One possible explanation is that other parts of Nova Scotia now simply have fewer young people to “send” to Halifax; an alternative hypothesis is that young people are now finding more opportunities in their home communities and feeling less need to move away to find work.

Source: Statistics Canada, Annual Demographic Estimates, Table 17-10-0136-01

The other component of population growth is net natural growth: births minus deaths. This figure was on a steady downward trend from 2011 to 2018, but it stabilized in 2019 and rebounded in 2020. It is possible that the success in attracting young adults to Halifax since 2016 is translating into upward movement in the birth rate.

In short, the most recent population data for Halifax are very encouraging as we continue to see strong overall growth, continued success in attracting people from other parts of Canada and beyond, and perhaps the beginning of an upward trend in our birth rate.

However, we should temper our expectations for at least the next year.

Statistics Canada publishes population and migration data for cities only once per year, but data at the provincial level come out on a quarterly basis. If we assume that seasonal patterns for Nova Scotia are similar to those for Halifax, we can peer into Halifax’s future by looking at the provincial numbers we have up to September 2020.

As the chart below shows, international migration to Nova Scotia tends to grow from the winter (blue) into the spring (green), hit a peak in the summer (red) – including September when students arrive, and then fall back somewhat in the autumn (orange) before rising again in the next winter.

The year covered by the most recent Halifax-level data runs from summer 2019 through spring 2020 (marked by the patterned columns). Exceptionally strong summer and autumn numbers offset drops for winter and spring numbers, which explains the relatively strong annual results for Halifax in 2019/20. However, a clear pandemic-induced drop-off is visible in the summer (Q3) data for 2020.

The more detailed data show that the major decline was in the category “Net non-permanent residents” – this is largely our international student population. From all this we can glean that when the next annual results for Halifax are published in January 2022, we likely will see a sharp downturn in our population growth and migration figures.

So, while there is good news in terms of recent results, we are expecting that next year’s numbers will not be as positive. Fortunately, the fundamentals that have been attracting people to Halifax over the past five years remain intact and once the world has been released from the pandemic’s grip, there is good reason to think that we will quickly get back onto our growth trajectory. In fact, given how well we have handled the COVID-19 situation in comparison to other jurisdictions, we may emerge even more attractive than ever.

We still have a storm to weather, but there is sunshine on the horizon.

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