Insights from Quebecers voting with their feet

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Appeared in the National Post, June 29, 2016

Observing patterns in how Canadians chose to leave one province for another is a powerful way to gauge what’s working and what’s not. Uprooting one’s family, disposing of assets, searching for a new job, and leaving the confines of what is known in search of something better is an incredibly costly decision and not one taken lightly. Thus the movement of people between provinces, what is known as interprovincial migration, is a key indicator of success and failure. By this measure, Quebecers should be worried.

In a recent study, we examined the migration patterns of Canadians over a 44-year period starting in 1971-72 through to 2014-15. During this period, Quebec lost a net total of 582,479 residents, which accounts for both residents leaving the province as well as residents of other provinces moving to Quebec. In other words, on average, 13,238 more Quebecers left the province annually than people from other provinces moved to Quebec. In fact, Quebec was the only province to experience a net out-migration of residents each and every year of the study period.

The headline of this story and its day-to-day reality is familiar to many Quebecers. However, what has been missed to-date is the actual detail of why Quebec loses so many residents compared to the other provinces. The answer lies in first understanding that there are two flows of people that determine the net movement of Canadians: people moving out of a province and people moving into a province.

This statistic will shock Quebecers—la belle province has the lowest level of people leaving the province compared to the other nine provinces. Specifically, Quebec, on average, experienced out-migration of 5.4 people annually per 1,000 population. The next lowest province, Ontario, experienced out-migration of 7.4 people per 1,000 population. The province with the highest level of out-migration was Prince Edward Island with 23.4 people per 1,000 population.

So if Quebec has the lowest rate of out-migration of the 10 provinces how can it record such dismal results in terms of people leaving the province over the last four-and-a-half decades? The answer is telling with respect to the economic problems in the province.

Recall that net migration is a function of both the number of people leaving and coming to the province. While Quebec records the lowest level of people leaving the province, it also has by far the worst record of being able to attract people to the province. One easy statistic highlighting the dismal performance of Quebec in attracting people is that between 1971-72 and 2014-15, Atlantic Canada attracted 75 per cent more Canadians from other provinces than Quebec: 1.9 million people moved to the Atlantic provinces compared to 1.1 million for Quebec.

Over the period studied, on average, Quebec attracted 3.5 people annually per 1,000 population to the province. Ontario was able to attract more than double the rate of in-migration as Quebec over the same period: 7.5 people per 1,000 population. Not surprising Alberta recorded the highest level of in-migration at 26.8 people per 1,000 population.

Simply put, Quebec has the least dynamic population in terms of people moving in and out of the province, and in particular the province has a dismal record of attracting people from other parts of the country.

Many explanations have been offered over the years regarding why Quebec performs so poorly, particularly given the presence of one of Canada’s great metropolitan centres (Montreal). The reasons range from a high-tax, anti-business environment, to a relatively closed society, to the prominence of a minority language within North America (French).

It’s likely that all of these factors plus some others contribute to the lack of competitiveness in the province in being able to attract people from other parts of the country. This inability to attract people is a sign of a deeper problem in the province that can only be solved once it’s fully recognized and political leaders commit to a solution. Until then it will remain a regular fact of life.

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