For years, Rosemary Venne saw bright young minds graduate from her university classroom in Saskatoon and leave the province. The new professionals wanted to head for larger cities, bigger companies and better opportunities.
Not only was the brain drain demoralizing, but every five years come census time, it also branded Saskatchewan as a province with a stagnant or declining population.
This year, however, the figures were dramatically different.
"We used to be a loser in the interprovincial migration sweepstakes. But now we've been a gainer," says Venne, a University of Saskatchewan professor who studies demographic effects on the labour force. "We've had more migration in than out."
'In the past, people used to make jokes like, 'the last person in the province turn off the lights,' and people felt a little down about that. I think people feel empowered and really good about the province now that it's growing.' —University of Saskatchewan professor Rosemary Venne
Saskatchewan and other provinces west of Ontario have been luring new residents with the promise of new job opportunities, a symptom of economic strength. Their rates of growth have even outpaced Ontario — Canada's traditional population powerhouse.
Census figures released last month by Statistics Canada show Alberta grew at a rate of 10.8 per cent, British Columbia 7 per cent and Saskatchewan 6.7 per cent — all well ahead of the country's overall 5.9 per cent rate of growth.
Percentage rates have to be interpreted with caution: Alberta's growth may be soaring, but real population is still just 3.6 million, compared to Ontario's 12.9 million.
To Venne, the increasing rates of growth reflect a shift in how the West is perceived.
"In the past people used to make jokes like, 'The last person in the province turn off the lights,' and people felt a little down about that," she says. "I think people feel empowered and really good about the province now that it's growing."
That positive attitude is also proving infectious.
Observers say even as westward bound job-seekers are putting down roots and expanding their families, those who originally hail from Western Canada are choosing to stay put.
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"There could be a change of mentality about the desirability of the West," says Frank Trovato, who edits the journal "Canadian Studies in Population" and teaches at the University of Alberta.
While attitude is important — particularly when western provincial governments are trying to win the hearts of new migrants — the hard economic reality behind such positivity is the real driver of growth.
"It's the economy," says Trovato. "What that does is it draws migrants from other parts of the country ... also related to the economy as well is increased international migration."
The western provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in particular — are working hard to boost the number of new immigrants who pick cities like Regina or Edmonton over the traditional first choice of Toronto and its immediate environs.
Stronger guarantees of jobs, a more streamlined application process through the provincial nominee program, increased support services for newcomers and lower living costs all help sweeten the deal.
Many newcomers expected to start families
And with a better economy and a greater influx of people, Trovato suggests the western provinces might be benefiting from more babies as well.
"Under better economic conditions people may decide to have children now as opposed to wait," he says, adding that international newcomers generally expand their families after settling into their new homes.
"Immigrants in general are in the prime adult years for labour force, but also those years coincide with family building." Another reason for increasing fertility in the West is the larger percentage of First Nations people which make up the provinces, says demographer and University of Toronto professor David Foot.
Additionally, smaller towns — of which there are many in the Prairies — often tend to produce more babies than urban areas. But Foot cautions against over-magnifying the fertility of the West.
"Those are all factors, but you wouldn't want to leave the impression that quantitatively they're as important as migration, both internal and international," he says.
Boom could turn to bust
And while the West is undoubtedly growing at a rapid rate, it's hardly the first time, Foot cautions.
"The West booms and then busts. Much of the cycle comes from what happens to international resource prices," he says. "This a snapshot of a point in the cycle near the peak."
With the pro-business push for increased urbanization even in provinces which have traditionally been predominantly rural, there can also be a significant downside.
"Growth isn't always positive because it can be bad for the environment," Foot says. "Gradually, we're pushing our cities out into good quality farmland. It's not necessarily a good news story."
There are others who view the story of the West's success with guarded optimism.
"We're clearly magnifying the West's progress, but it's part of a larger trend," says Jack Jedwab, the executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, who has done an independent study situating the census figures in a North American context.
What he found was that along with the provinces east of Ontario, the northeastern part of the United States hasn't been faring particularly well in terms of population growth either. Meanwhile, as Western Canada grows, so do the western and southwestern parts of the U.S.
"It shows it's not a purely Canadian phenomenon," he says of the shift west.
"It shows there are shared strategies that maybe could be useful. It's important because it helps us understand that the way resources are allocated are an important factor in these changes."
Jedwab believes governments would do well to take note of the North American trends as they consider issues like resources and funding. He also points out that in real numbers, it's worth noting that even booming cities like Calgary, which grew at a rate of 10.9 per cent, remain far smaller than traditional central Canadian urban hubs like Toronto.
Nonetheless, the general sentiment surrounding the rise of the West is hard to deny.
"It's all the symbolism around the rates of growth that's, I think, penetrating people's consciousness," Jedwab says.
"They think of growth, they think of the western part of the country."