On Feb. 7, Statistics Canada released information reporting there were 3,606 people counted in Hay River in the 2011 census, compared to 3,648 in the census of 2006. That’s a decline of 42 people.
Mayor Kelly Schofield believes the decline is a sign of a struggling local economy.
“We’ve seen some business closures and we’re going to see some more in the near future, unfortunately, and, as a direct result of that, we don’t have businesses creating jobs and people have to move on and look for jobs elsewhere,” he said.
Schofield also blamed part of the problem on GNWT centralization.
“It’s still rampant within the Northwest Territories and it’s affecting all of the outlying communities outside of Yellowknife, such as Hay River,” he said.
The mayor would like to see 10 to 20 territorial government positions relocated to Hay River.
Despite the population decline, Hay River continues to be the second largest community in the NWT, with 143 more people than Inuvik but still far behind a growing Yellowknife.
The latest statistics indicate the number of occupied private dwellings in Hay River actually rose between the two censuses – from 1,318 to 1,405.
The Hay River Reserve recorded fewer people in the census, dropping from 309 to 292 residents. The number of occupied private dwellings on the reserve rose slightly from 87 to 89.
The overall population of the NWT remained virtually unchanged, falling by just two people from 41,464 to 41,462.
“That by itself is not terribly unexpected,” said Jeff Barichello, acting territorial statistician with the NWT Bureau of Statistics, which is a GNWT agency and not part of Statistics Canada.
Those two fewer people mean the NWT has the distinction of being the only jurisdiction with a population decline anywhere in Canada. Every province and the two other territories all saw population growth.
However, Barichello explained the census numbers are not the final word on the populations of communities or the NWT as a whole.
“You have to understand these are population counts and they’re not the same as population estimates,” he said.
Barichello said the census only reveals the number of people who were enumerated.
“So the purpose of the census is to try and count every single person in Canada, but inevitably there’s going to be some people who weren’t counted or who were counted twice,” he said. “So what Statistics Canada does after each census is they do further studies to estimate how many people were missed or counted twice.”
The survey results and the census when taken together form the basis of population estimates, and there is usually an adjustment upward from the census numbers. The final population estimates from Statistics Canada will be released in September of 2013.
Fort Smith Mayor Janie Hobart believes the census count of the NWT population is too low.
“I think that should be a major concern for the territorial government,” she said, noting federal funding to the NWT is often based on population. “I think this should be putting up a red flag.”
Hobart also thinks there were inaccuracies in the census counts in Fort Smith and other NWT communities.
As for Schofield, he said census numbers are always open for scrutiny, but the numbers for Hay River can largely be trusted.
“By keeping an eye on what’s going on around Hay River, I’d have to say that I believe that we have gone down in population, unfortunately,” he said, “Whether it’s 42 people, I’m not sure if that number is accurate, but I would say it’s probably fairly close.”
The census shows Yellowknife is growing, while the populations of many smaller communities are decreasing. In Yellowknife, 19,234 were counted in last year’s census, compared to 18,700 in 2006.
It is too early to say if Yellowknife is growing at the expense of smaller NWT communities because the census doesn’t show migration trends, Barichello said. “There are other possibilities that haven’t been ruled out yet.”
The 2011 census also shows the number of occupied private dwellings in the NWT grew to 14,700 last year, compared to 14,224 five years earlier, even though the population count remained virtually the same.
That means the average number of people per dwelling has decreased, Barichello said, adding that could signal a general improvement in the problem of overcrowded housing.