A study by Western researchers shows most newcomers – and the majority of Canadians ─ choose to live in cities. It’s a historical trend negatively impacting smaller communities looking to counteract the effects of an aging population, declining birth rates and economic disparities in the urban-rural divide.
Findings of the study were presented in the paper The Places We’ll Go: Rural Migration in Canada, authored by PhD candidate Lindsay Finlay and her supervisor, sociology professor Michael Haan. The paper was published in the January 2024 issue of the Journal of Rural Studies.
While a substantial body of literature looks at the movement of immigrants and native-born Canadians across the country, Finlay’s study stands out for focusing on the characteristics that positively predict rural settlement.
“I was interested in knowing what factors encouraged new arrivals to Canada, as well as the existing Canadian population, to live in more rural settings,” said Finlay, who conducted the core research as part of her master’s thesis from 2020 to 2022.
Using data from the 1991 and 2016 census helped track how these characteristics changed over time.
Haan, a demographer and director of the Research Data Centre at Western, said studying the two different time points was important, because the Canadian population changed a lot during the 25-year period.
“The baby boomers began retiring in 2011 and it’s not clear when or where they’ll move,” he said. “Millennials are now in the stage of their lives where they’re likely thinking about where they’ll live. Canada now admits more immigrants than it ever has, who generally live in urban areas, but recent policy changes are trying to shift that somewhat.”
What defines ‘rural’?
The term ‘rural,’ “means different things to different people,” Finlay said, noting the line becomes blurred as cities continue to expand into what were once rural areas.
Her study follows the Statistics Canada’s definition, classifying any city or town with a population of 10,000 or less as a rural location.
As such, “Canada is mostly rural, not urban,” Finlay said.
Factors influencing the propensity to live in rural Canada
Finlay examined factors such as marriage, children, language proficiency, education, income and immigrant/visible minority status, to help define what predicts the likelihood of an individual to live in a smaller community.
Overall, those who are married, have children and are of neither immigrant nor visible minority status tend to live in more rural locations.
“In general, regardless of how much time has passed, both immigrants and visible minorities are more likely to opt for urban areas over rural,” Finlay said, noting the majority of the population residing in rural areas in both 1991 and 2016 identified as neither immigrants nor visible minorities, at upwards of 90 per cent.
Age was also a key factor, with “a significant number of older adults residing within rural locations.” Some of this can be attributed to an influx of newly retired people, looking to escape densely populated areas and benefit from a lower cost of living, alongside long-time residents who choose to “age-in-place.”
Changing policies, challenging perceptions
Finlay hopes the findings of the study will offer federal policy makers insight into important trends in current Canadian immigration policies.
Given that immigrants and visible minorities are less likely to live in rural areas, both across time and overall, her study suggests current immigration policy initiatives may be inadvertently working against smaller communities.
For example, one of the main focuses of various Canadian immigration policies is to attract high human capital immigrants (those with higher levels of education and skills). While the goal is to improve the overall standing and competitive edge of the country in terms of demographics and economics, “the results of our study show individuals with higher levels of education and earnings, as well as those engaged in industries within the labour force requiring these higher levels of skill and experience, are not living in rural settings,” Finlay said. “That creates a problematic gap, especially in recruitment and retention.”
To encourage a more extensive pool of new arrivals to move to locations outside of large Canadian cities, current policies may need to be adjusted.
Some public perceptions about immigration may also need to change.
“We see across time, influxes of acceptance of immigration and what it means for us. But then, we also run into situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, where suddenly, there’s a hesitancy about certain groups and policy changes that now might be affecting where people can live,” Finlay said.
It’s an issue she wants to explore further, using 2021 census data.
“I want to see if the pandemic had an impact on where people were living based on these hesitancies and policy changes in terms of who is being accepted (to come to Canada), and the changes in opinions and immigration across time.”
She’s also hoping to expand her research to include different data sets, including the Statistics Canada General Social Survey.
“You can now look at data showing how people perceive their discrimination experiences, their social wellbeing or sense of belonging in a community. I think it would be really interesting to study how that affects where people are living across time.”
Finlay’s research underscores the need for populations to expand geographically and for rural communities to expand their understanding and preparedness to help newcomers feel welcome and fully integrate.
“The reality is, Canada will continue to become more diverse, so it’s important to be inclusive and help people feel they can succeed there and not just in the larger centres,” she said. “An expanse of possibilities that could attract and retain newcomers will give smaller places the chance to thrive.”