International Migration to BC: Q4 2010
Ryan Berlin & Andrew Ramlo
The Urban Futures Institute

For those of us that follow the ebbs and flows of migration data, the most recent release from Statistics Canada’s Quarterly Demographic Estimates caught us off guard. While most media did not report on the release, headlines could have run the gamut, from “Canada experiences its second largest quarter-over-quarter decline in net international migration” to “British   Columbia’s net international migration is negative for the first time ever”.

While the net loss of 727 people from BC to other countries in Q4 2010 is, in and of itself, a small number (see Figure 1), it is significant both in terms of its direction—being the first time that BC’s quarterly net international migration has been negative in Statistics Canada’s database, which dates back to 1972—and in its magnitude of change from previous quarters. While a seasonal pattern is evident in BC’s quarterly migration data, the decline in Q4 net international migration was much more pronounced in 2010 than in previous years, falling from a net inflow of 16,371 international migrants in Q3 2010 (the second-highest on record in the past 38 years, after only Q3 2008), to a net outflow of 727 international migrants in Q4 2010.


Why the significant shift from historical trends? As it turns out, the answer lies not in a significant change in immigration or emigration levels, but in changes in the number of non-permanent residents living in both Canada and in BC. For the most part, non-permanent residents are people residing in Canada who hold a work or study permit, and their dependants, as well as those holding Minister’s permits or claiming refugee status.

Net international migration, the mobility dimension most commonly reported on, is calculated as the number of people moving here from other countries (immigrants) minus those moving to other countries (emigration) plus the change in the number of non-permanent residents in the province. In considering immigration and emigration flows in Q4 2010, Figure 2 shows that not much of a deviation from recent trends was seen: 8,499 people immigrated to BC in Q4 2010, close to the decade-long average for Q4 immigration of 8,574 people. Similarly, the 1,674 people who emigrated from BC in Q4 2010 was close to the decade-long average for Q4 emigration of 1,634 people. The situation was similar Canada-wide: Q4 2010 immigration of 57,713 was close to the Q4 decade average of 53,631, and emigration of 11,971 close to the average of 9,705.


The change in the number of non-permanent residents, on the other hand, was the largest in British Columbia’s history and the largest Canada has seen since 1991. Relative to the average Q4 net increase of 170 non-permanent residents in BC over the past decade, there was a 7,353 decrease in the number of non-permanent residents in BC in Q4 2010. While a seasonal pattern is seen nationally, with Q4 characterized by a decline in the number of non-permanent residents (an average decrease of 20,842 over the past decade), the 34,164-person outflow was significantly more than has been seen in recent history. 

In British Columbia the rather significant divergence from recent trends was the consequence of the departure of large numbers of temporary workers and/or students from the province, presumably returning home. Given the shift in direction and the magnitude of the change, it is important to note that the period leading up to Q4 2010 was a time of above-average net gains in the number of non-permanent residents. Between Q1 2007 and Q3 2010, the number of non-permanent residents in BC grew by 52,908 (an average increase of 3,527 people per quarter over that period), with Q3 2010 alone seeing an increase of 5,687. Only three months later, 14 percent of the increase in non-permanent residents BC had seen since Q1 2007 was lost with the departure of 7,353 people in Q4 2010.

The significant outflow of non-permanent residents nationally was also reflected in most provinces. Alberta saw the number of non-permanent residents decline by 6,725, Saskatchewan by 414, Manitoba by 406, Ontario by 12,603, and Quebec by 5,900. The most notable changes were, however, in the west. In only two provinces (BC and Alberta) was immigration not significant enough to balance the outflow of non-permanent residents, thus resulting in declines in total net international migration of 727 in BC and 2,092 in Alberta.

With Citizenship and Immigration Canada estimating that there were 67,755 foreign workers in BC in 2010 and only slightly fewer foreign students (60,437), trends in international migration to and from BC over the coming quarters will be interesting to follow. This is especially true when considered against the backdrop of both the labour force impacts of our aging population and 2010 seeing the largest number of immigrants welcomed to Canada since the 1950s.

It will also be interesting to see what the headlines have to say through the remainder of 2011. More than likely they will focus on an unemployment rate that continues to fall from recent highs following the 2008 recession and on a relatively significant number of newcomers being welcomed to Canada as our economy outperforms other industrialized nations.


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