Ontarians on the Move, 2021 Edition. #2 — One Million New Ontarians.

Second in (what I hope) will be a series on population growth, migration, and what’s going on with Ontario’s housing market. Previous piece: #1 -The Big Picture

TL;DR: Over the past five years, the number of people calling Ontario home has increased by one million. This rapid population increase has not been equally distributed across the province. However, this is not a story of “the big get bigger”, as some of the fastest-growing places in Ontario (and Canada) are places that had previously been slow growth, such as Oxford and Middlesex. This undoubtedly plays a role in the rapid growth of home prices in those communities.

In my previous piece, we saw that Ontario started to experience accelerated population growth in 2015.

Given year-to-year volatility in the numbers, I thought it would be instructed to look at growth in 5-year periods, comparing the last five years to the ones before it. Recall, at a community level, there are five sources of population growth:

  1. “Natural” increases
  2. Net international immigration
  3. Net “non-permanent residents”
  4. Net interprovincial migrants
  5. Net intraprovincial migrants (which at a province-wide level, must net out to zero)

Here’s how 2015–2020 compares to 2010–2015:

In the earlier five-year period, Ontario’s population grew by just over 570,000. This would be nearly doubled over the later five-year period. The biggest change was in the growth of net non-permanent residents; these are foreign students attending school, individuals on work visas, temporary foreign workers, and a few other categories. Increases in net immigration play some role in the jump in Ontario’s growth numbers. Population flows across Canada also play a role; when oil prices were high (as in the first period), Ontarians, on net, moved to other provinces. When oil prices crashed, the flow reversed.

There was almost no difference in the number of births between the two periods (701,182 vs. 704,268), but the number of deaths rose substantially (465,142 vs. 529,729) due to an aging population.

But what did this mean at a local level?

Examining Ontario’s 49 Census Divisions

Ontario has 49 census divisions that are used by Statistics Canada to examine data at a local level. In Southern Ontario, a census division is often simply a county, so I have a tendency to think of them that way, but that isn’t wholly accurate as shown by this map from Wikipedia:

Let’s look at how each of these grew (or didn’t grow) in population from 2010–15 and 2015–20. Data from 49 census divisions are a lot to digest in a single table, so I thought it would be helpful to find a way to group them together. Fortunately, the good people at the Municipal Retirees Organization Ontario have come up with a sensible system.

We can go through each zone, one by one, and examine population growth over the two periods and compare it to the Ontario average. Let’s start in Toronto and make our way counter-clockwise around the province.

Zone 4 — Toronto Area

How to read this chart, using the Ontario row:

  • Ontario’s population was 13,135,778 in 2010 and 14,734,014 in 2020.
  • Ontario grew by 571,340 persons between 2010–15 and 1,026,896 persons in 2015–20.
  • In the 5 years between 2010 and 2015, the province’s population grew by 4.3% (total, not annualized). Between 2015 and 2020, it grew by 7.5%. Any growth rate above 10% is highlighted in green (fast), any between 0–5% is highlighted in red (slow), and any negative growth rates are highlighted in grey.

Over the last five years, Toronto has grown at a slower rate than the rest of the province. Despite this, it still had the largest absolute increase in population in the province, though Peel came in a close second. York’s growth rate actually went down; a place that was growing twice as fast as the provincial average between 2010–15 is now growing slower than the rest of the province. And Durham keeps trucking along. (Yes, that’s a General Motors joke).

Overall, the Toronto area is growing at about the provincial average, largely due to the rapid growth of the Peel region.

Zone 5— Eastern Ontario

This zone barely grew at all between 2010–15, but added over 33,000 persons in 2015–20. The biggest change was in Frontenac (Kingston), which saw a population increase of over 10,000 in 2015–20. I wonder how much of that is due to an increased number of international students at Queen’s? Worth investigating later. Hastings and Peterborough saw big jumps as well.

Zone 6 — Ottawa Region

It’s stunning how closely the Ottawa region matches provincial trends. In both periods, the sprawling city of Ottawa grew faster than the province as a whole, and the more rural surrounding census divisions grew at a slower rate.

Zone 7 — Northeastern Ontario

Between 2010–15, Northeastern Ontario saw a population decline of roughly 5,000 people; over the next five years, they would experience a population gain of roughly the same size, leaving the population size virtually unchanged over the decade.

Zone 8— Northwestern Ontario

We see a similar trend in Northwestern Ontario, where a small population decline in 2010–15 was offset by a small population gain in 2015–20.

Zone 9 — Cottage Country

Simcoe (Barrie) and Dufferin (Orangeville) were two of the fastest-growing Census Divisions (CDs) in Ontario in 2010–15 and grew even faster in 2015–20, with Simcoe one of five Ontario CDs to grow by over 10% during the period and Dufferin just missing. These are two parts of the province seeing big population gains from “drive until you qualify”; that is an influx of young families looking for a good quality of life and real estate they can afford.

The big jumps in the growth rates of Grey, Kawartha Lakes, and Muskoka are worth exploring. I suspect a fair bit of it is from retirees “cashing out” of Toronto real estate and retiring in those communities. I’ll be exploring this in a future piece.

Let’s now take a boat down Georgian Bay, through Lake Huron, and see what’s going on in Windsor, Sarnia, and Chatham-Kent.

Zone 1 — Sarnia-Windsor Area

This was a region that experienced significant out-migration during the oil boom, as a lot of workers who, in the past, would have worked in manufacturing took their skills to the oilpatch. I wonder how much of the recent population increases are due to those workers returning? Anecdotally, I’m also hearing a lot of “drive until you qualify” stories of families priced out of London real-estate moving to Chatham or Sarnia. Finally, given the province-wide increase in non-permanent residents, an increase in the number of temporary foreign workers in agriculture is almost certainly playing a role. I’ll be taking a look at the region in a future piece.

Zone 2 — London Area

Look at these numbers! This zone barely grew at all in 2010–15, now it’s growing faster than the Ontario average. The London (Middlesex) and Woodstock (Oxford) real estate markets have been on fire for the last five years. Population growth is fueling the boom, with Middlesex being one of the fastest-growing Census Divisions in the country, and Oxford not too far behind. Where are all the people coming from? “Drive until you qualify” has to be a large part of the explanation, along with an international student boom at Fanshawe and Western. Elgin (St. Thomas) is also seeing a boost from “Drive until you qualify” — remember the old 25% More campaign?

The Haldimand-Norfolk numbers are eye-popping as well. I’ll be examining them in a follow-up piece.

Zone 3— Golden Horseshoe

Like the London area, the Golden Horseshoe grew by 8.5% in 2015–20, somewhat above the Ontario average. Unlike the London area, this area also grew faster than the Ontario average in the previous period as well, largely thanks to a booming Halton region. (Repeat after me: “Drive until you qualify”.)

Waterloo (which includes the cities of Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo) is the fastest growing Census Division in Ontario, in percentage terms. In a future piece, I’ll be examining how much of this is due to “drive until you qualify” vs. international students vs. immigration. All three are playing a big role, but in what proportion? And don’t overlook Wellington (Guelph) which is experiencing significant growth as well.


This data leaves me with a lot of questions to examine in future pieces, but here’s what jumped out at me:

  1. Toronto is still the fastest growing CD in absolute terms, but percentage-wise is growing slower than the provincial average.
  2. Peel’s population growth has shot up, while York’s has slowed down.
  3. The non-urban parts of cottage country, which had been no-growth, are now growing at around the provincial average.
  4. The biggest change over the past five years is in the growth rate of urban centres between 100–200km from Toronto. The KCW Tri-Cities are booming, Barrie is one of the fastest-growing places in the country, London is booming after a period of stagnant growth, and Woodstock is getting big. Of the five CDs that have grown by 10% or more (Waterloo, Peel, Simcoe, Middlesex, and Halton) all but Peel are in this band.
  5. Kingston is experiencing significant growth. An influx of international students into the province is certainly playing a secondary role in real-estate price escalation in college and university towns.

Next piece: #3 — Toronto vs. Not Toronto

Senior Director, Smart Prosperity. Assistant Prof, Ivey Business School. Exhausted but happy Dad of 2 wonderful kids with autism. I used to do other stuff.