Migration to BC: Q3 2011
Andrew Ramlo & Ryan Berlin
The Urban Futures Institute

Recent Migration Trends in BC

Migration data from the last quarter of 2010 revealed a significant decline in the level of net international migration to the province of BC. While the net loss of 1,145 people from BC to other countries at the end of 2010 was small in number, it was significant both in terms of its direction—being the first time that BC’s quarterly net international migration had ever been negative in Statistics Canada’s database (which dates back to 1972)—and in its magnitude of change from previous quarters. As it turns out, this loss was driven not by significant changes in levels of immigration or emigration, but a change in the number of non-permanent residents living in BC (and in Canada as a whole). The quarterly change in the number of non-permanent residents was the largest in BC’s history.

The most recent quarterly migration data (Q3 of 2011) revealed another significant decline for BC: a loss of residents through interprovincial migration. While also relatively small in number (723 more people moved from BC to other provinces than from them), the net loss of BC residents to other provinces in Canada is significant for two reasons. First, this quarterly loss follows losses in both Q1 and Q2 of 2011, representing the first time since 2003 that the province has seen three consecutive quarters of net interprovincial out-migration. Second, while the wash and backwash of labour force migrants between BC and Alberta is evident in the migration data back to 1972, a significant proportion of the losses in the most recent quarter were to Ontario and, perhaps more surprisingly, to Quebec.

The Relationship between GDP Growth and Migration

While Gross Domestic Product (GDP) represents the de facto indicator of economic well-being, these data are only typically tabulated at the national level. With similar data not available for provinces, most assessment of provincial economic conditions rely more on changes in employment levels, construction activity, retail spending, and consumer and business sentiment. Migration data, albeit less frequently quoted, are also good indicators of directions of change in provincial economic activity. More specifically, the flow of migrants between provinces provides a good indication of relative provincial economic health.

For example, the figure below shows the history of quarterly net interprovincial migration for BC and the difference in annual growth in real GDP between BC and Canada as a whole. As the two data series have clearly moved in the same direction over the past three decades, it is interesting to consider the current outflow of interprovincial migrants from BC (and our below-average GDP growth rate) against previous periods of economic change.

Following a volatile economic period in the early- to mid-1980s that came on the heels of a second wave of oil price shocks in the late-1970s, Q1 1987 marked the beginning of a significant and sustained net inflow of migrants to BC from other parts of Canada. In fact, from the beginning of 1987 to the end of 1997 an annual average of almost 29,100 more people moved from other provinces in Canada to BC than from BC to them (a net gain of 319,894 people over the eleven years). These significant net inflows came along with a period of above-average growth in BC’s economy relative to Canada as a whole: between 1987 and 1997, annual real GDP growth in BC averaged 3.2 percent, while real GDP growth Canada-wide averaged only 2.4 percent. While positive net inflows of people—and workers—to BC over this period undoubtedly buoyed the provincial economy, the fact that BC managed to avoid falling into recession in the early-1990s as other provincial economies contracted may have also played a role.

With few structural barriers to mobility within Canada (unlike international migration), BC residents began packing their bags for other provinces at the beginning of 1998: from this point to the end of 2003 an average of 10,700 more people moved from BC to other provinces annually than moved to BC from them (more than 64,000 people in total). This period of out-migration coincided with economic growth in BC that, while never dipping into negative territory, fell well below the Canadian average: between 1998 and 2003 growth in BC’s real GDP averaged 2.6 percent annually, while economic growth in Canada as a whole averaged 3.6 percent.

From 2004 to the end of 2009 BC’s economy fared relatively well compared to Canada as a whole, with growth in BC’s real GDP averaging 2.4 percent versus Canada at 1.8 percent. With BC faring better than average through the credit crisis and resulting recession in 2009, it is not surprising that interprovincial migration remained positive up to the end of 2009. Annual interprovincial migration to BC averaged 7,300 people between 2004 and the end of 2009, with almost 51,300 more people moving to BC from other provinces than those moving the other way.


Early 2010 marked yet another transition in both the economic and migration data for BC. GDP data show that provincial economic activity in BC fell below the national average, with the BC economy growing by 3.0 percent versus a Canada-wide average of 3.2 percent. While still positive, the migration data for 2010 showed significant declines in the number of people moving to the province, falling from more than 3,600 in the first half of the year to only 1,000 through the second half. More importantly, the decline continued, moving into negative territory through each of the first three quarters of 2011.

While on their own these patterns may be interesting to a range of economics and demographics geeks, the relationship between relative economic performance and interprovincial migration should be of interest to a much wider audience. With more timely migration data for the provinces, this relationship provides a good indication of directions of change in provincial economic activity.

If history is a good indicator of things to come (which it is often not), the three quarters of negative migration flows in 2011 for BC would suggest a continuation of below-average economic growth in BC through 2011 when compared to our provincial counterparts. Further, as people don’t wait for the release of new economic data to make decisions to move, additional quarters of net out-migration from BC may portend slower growth through early 2012. Only time—and data—will tell!