For years, the joke was that Alberta’s greatest asset was Saskatchewan’s public education system. The siren call of higher wages, plentiful jobs and a great lifestyle in Alberta has lured thousands of migrants from Saskatchewan over the years, many of them young and well educated.
And for years, Saskatchewan watched with gloom as many of its best, brightest and most talented moved west to greener pastures. Saskatchewan’s population growth has stalled. As of July 1, 2007, it was still just shy of 1 million residents " not much more than where it was after the Second World War. Alberta’s popula- tion has almost quadrupled over that same time.
But now the joke looks as if it may be on Alberta. For three consecutive quarters, Saskatchewan has been a net recipient of migrants from Alberta. In the second quarter of 2007, an estimat- ed 2,950 Saskatchewanians moved west to Alberta; but 4,456 Albertans went the other way. And that trend has been fairly steady for the past two years. (Alberta is still a net recipient of interprovincial migrants with most of the other provinces, however, and its population continues to grow at three times the national average.)
The reason for the turning tide? Much of it likely has to do with the rising cost of living in Alberta. The net flow of people from Saskatchewan to Alberta peaked in the summer of 2005. Not coincidentally, this is just about the time the housing market in Alberta real- ly started taking off. The price of an aver- age home in Calgary is teetering on the doorstep of half a million dollars. For that much money, you could buy a man- sion in Regina and lakefront property at a lovely spot in northern Saskatchewan, and probably have enough left over to start a nice travel fund.
It’s a tempting proposition for many Albertans, many of whom are originally from Saskatchewan, have relatives in that province or simply want out of the escalating cost envi- ronment in Alberta.
Another reason is that Saskatchewan is experiencing its own economic boom. Its natural resource sector " oil, potash, uranium, dia- monds, base metals " is more diversi- fied than Alberta’s, and resource prices are solid. The province has the second- lowest unemployment rate in the country. Labour supplies are tight. Wages are rising and job opportunities are excellent.
The Conference Board of Canada predicts that Saskatoon will be the fastest-growing major city this year, with the GDP expanding by 4.7 per- cent. Calgary is in second place, lag- ging behind at ”œonly” 4.4 percent.
Of course, Saskatoon is a small city " one-fifth the size of Calgary and only 1/25th the size of the Greater Toronto Area. A new strip mall or bowling alley would have a noticeable effect on growth. But, size aside, the city is on a tear and expanding in all four directions. Real estate prices in Saskatoon, which were the fastest ris- ing in the country over the summer, are clear evidence of the city’s new- found groove.
A third reason for Saskatchewan’s new-found attraction is market- ing. The provincial government has realized that the future of the province cannot be secure with a shrinking pop- ulation. In reaction, it’s been fighting back with an aggressive campaign to lure people back. Slick TV ads and posters around Alberta extol the bene- fits of living and working in Saskatchewan. In Calgary bus stops and on Edmonton billboards, Albertans are taunted with pictures of good-looking young families standing in front of their shiny, new 1,500- square-foot homes in Saskatchewan (price tag: $169,000).
The government has also intro- duced some tempting benefits for young graduates. In Saskatchewan, income over the first five years of employment (up to $100,000) is tax- free. No Alberta-style health care pre- miums for anyone, either.
Interestingly, the reversal of the tide has been driven more by Albertans moving to Saskatchewan, as opposed to simply fewer Saskatchewanians moving here. Anecdotal evidence sug- gests that some Albertans " likely for- mer Saskatchewanians " are taking advantage of high real estate prices in Alberta, cashing in and moving home.
Will Saskatchewan continue to be a drain on Alberta’s labour market? That’s unclear. While a portion of Albertans have been willing to cash in on their homes and move one province to the east, there is likely a limit to that number. Alberta is still the overall lowest tax environment in the country. Calgary and Edmonton " despite the cost run-ups " are experi- encing a vital renaissance in the arts and culture. There’s NHL hockey and mountains, to boot.
In the labour market tug-of-war, it’s probably healthy for Alberta to have some stiff competition from Saskatchewan. It will force Alberta to pay attention to those advantages that make it a great province " and to guard against those advantages slip- ping away.