An Urban Nation: The Shifting Fortunes of Canadian Cities


  • Kevin McQuillan University of Calgary
  • Michael Laszlo



Canada is not immune to the dramatic economic changes that are transforming society in other industrialized countries, where once-thriving factory and resource towns are dying, while educated knowledge workers in more cosmopolitan centres prosper. Where this growing inequality between communities and social classes takes root, worrisome social and political developments can develop, such as the polarization occurring in the U.S. and parts of Europe.

Canada’s 10 largest cities have been the primary driver of economic growth
in recent years, and Canada is unusual in the degree to which its population is concentrated in a relatively small number of cities. To date, Canada’s largest cities have been doing well and Canada has not so far seen the contrast so evident in the United States between highly successful cities and large cities in decline, such as Detroit and Cleveland.

However, a ranking of national cities using “vitality” scores highlights a growing inequality between Canada’s largest cities and its midsize and smaller cities.
In many communities in the Atlantic region, in Quebec beyond its two major cities, and in the northern regions of B.C. and Ontario, harder times may lie ahead. Their populations are stagnating, their employment rates for people

of prime working age are distressingly low, and their proportion of low- income families is high. Urban decline can lead to further poverty, significant population aging and more pressure on higher levels of government to provide services that these communities can no longer afford.

The strength of cities primarily revolves today around human capital and the ability of a community to develop or attract a highly skilled labour force. If Canada is to avoid
a future where just a few cities are economic and demographic “winners” and the rest are “losers,” policy-makers will need to consider how to help keep midsized cities from being increasingly left behind, whether that be through diversifying immigration patterns, targeted investment outside large urban areas, or other approaches. The pandemic, which has led some employers to rethink the need to keep workers in expensive big-city downtown offices, could create new opportunities to reinvigorate smaller, lower-cost centres.

However, without a change in the pattern of divergence between Canada’s dynamic cities and the rest, the societal and political strife that has unfolded elsewhere could someday happen here.






Research Papers