Shifting migration patterns are driving regional population growth

January 8, 2020
Ken Peacock

The province’s internal population growth dynamics have shifted in recent years. Population gains have eased in the Lower Mainland and accelerated in most other regions of the province. The reason for the change is migration, particularly movements of people within the province. There has been a sharp increase in the net flow of people out of the Lower Mainland to other parts of B.C. High housing prices appear to be affecting within-B.C. as well as interprovincial migration patterns.

Population growth has accelerated in all but two development regions

British Columbia is divided into eight development regions. The boundaries of these regions are used for measuring labour markets and tracking population flows, among other things. Population growth across these regions has changed significantly over the past five years, with many parts of the province recently growing in line with the Lower Mainland rather than lagging it. The first figure below shows average annual population growth in the eight development regions (and B.C.) for the periods 2009-2013 and 2014-2018.

Figure 1: Population growth increases in regions outside of Lower Mainland

Source: Statistics Canada, CANSIM Table: 17-10-0137-01.

From the graph, the following differences between the two periods emerge:

  • B.C.’s average annual population growth notched up from 1.3% to 1.5% between the two periods;
  • Population growth decelerated slightly in the Lower Mainland, from 1.7% to 1.6%;
  • Population in five other regions grew much more rapidly in the most recent period. Of particular note:
    - the average annual population growth rate doubled in the Island/Coast region
    - population in the Thompson Okanagan grew 2.6 times faster in the more recent period than between 2009 and 2013
    - there was a four-fold increase in the Kootenay’s population growth rate
    - in the Cariboo, the population fell at an average annual rate of -0.1% over the 2009-2013 period (inclusive) but grew by 0.9% annually between 2014-2018
    - the North Coast’s population went from shrinking -0.6% annually to increasing at a modest average annual pace of 0.2%
  • Population growth edged higher in the Nechako and slowed in the Northeast.

With population growth up sharply in the Thompson Okanagan and Vancouver Island & Coast regions, and also strengthening in the Kootenay, Cariboo and North Coast regions, population growth dynamics across B.C. have become more balanced. Although not shown in the graph, regional population growth was similar over the 2004-2008 period to the 2009-2013 era, but growth in the north was typically slower. So, the substantial pick-up in population growth in regions outside of the Lower Mainland represents a shift in at least decade-long patterns, likely longer.

Internal Migration Patterns

At the provincial level, there are two components of migration: international migrants (immigration) and interprovincial migrations (people relocating from or to other provinces). At the sub-provincial level there are the same two components to consider, as well as a third: intraprovincial migration, or movements within the province. The most significant changes have occurred in this third element.

Migration data from Statistics Canada show the number of people moving out of the Lower Mainland has accelerated sharply. Over the past few years, the net flow of people moving out of the southwest to other parts of B.C. has nearly quadrupled, from around 2,700 to 10,300 most recently.

As evident in the next graph, over the same period the internal flows of people moving to Vancouver Island and the Thompson Okanagan regions jumped. On the Island, net intraprovincial
migration surged from ~2,500 to more than 6,000. Similarly, the net internal inflow into the Thompson Okanagan region picked up from 2,300 to 4,600 over the same period. The increase in the number of people leaving the Lower Mainland also appears to be showing up in the Kootenay and Cariboo regions, where net intraprovincial migration has gone from small net outflows to small net inflows in recent years.

Figure 2: Migration within the Province has accelerated as more people move out of the Lower Mainland

Source: Statistics Canada, Table: 17-10-0138-01.

The rapid appreciation in the price of residential real estate seemingly has prompted a significant increase in the number of people leaving the Lower Mainland for other parts of B.C. There are two distinct dimensions, both related to the sharp rise in residential real estate prices in the last decade, at work. More home owners are selling and relocating to areas where their equity goes further. The motivation to relocate may be further supported by decisions to direct real estate equity to fund retirement or to assist children with down payments. The high cost of housing in Greater Vancouver is also pushing people who are not homeowners to other regions. Yes, recent price decreases have helped to improve affordability, but price levels are still punishingly high relative to household incomes and the latest migration data is for 2017/2018, before housing prices had eased much.

Interprovincial migration is the second component of migration. The figure below shows net interprovincial migration in each of the province’s eight development regions. Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the Thompson Okanagan all have substantial positive net inflows of people from other provinces. The exception is the Lower Mainland, which saw a couple of years of net outflows. The region has also seen net interprovincial migration drop from a peak of 11,000 to 7,000 to just 1,000 most recently in 2017/18. While the correlation is not as clear as it is with intraprovincial migration, housing prices are also likely a factor shaping interprovincial migration patterns.

Figure 3: Most interprovincial migrants settle in the south and central regions of the province

Source: Statistics Canada, Table: 17-10-0138-01.

The final element of migration is the international component. The vast majority of immigrants coming to B.C. settle in the Lower Mainland. In recent years, the net inflow of immigrants has been between 25,000 and 30,000. Vancouver Island receives a regular inflow of immigrants as well, but it amounts to around 2,000 persons annually.

Figure 4: Immigration overwhelmingly concentrated in the Lower Mainland

* Immigration less emigration

Source: Statistics Canada, Table: 17-10-0138-01.

Although people are moving out of the Lower Mainland to other parts of the province in growing numbers and net interprovincial migration is way down, the large net inflow of immigrants is supporting still-healthy population growth in the Lower Mainland. The shift in migration patterns has slightly dampened annual population gains in the Lower Mainland but has significantly lifted population growth in other regions of the province (except the Northeast). The result is population growth is now much more evenly distributed across the province.

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