Population and the Pandemic

Statistics Canada says that 309,893 Canadians died in 2020, which means annual deaths surpassed 300,000 for the first time in the country’s history.

As for the contribution of COVID, Stats Canada says:

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reported that 15,651 or 5.1% of deaths in 2020 were caused by COVID-19, meaning that the pandemic is estimated to have been the cause of about 1 in 20 deaths in Canada. This proportion was lower than what was estimated in the United Kingdom (12.3%), the United States (11.2%) and France (9.7%) but higher than in Australia (0.7%) and New Zealand (0.1%).

Focusing on the fourth quarter alone, deaths — at 81,759 — reached a record high for any quarter “since comparable records became available.” Stats Can says this was “mainly due to more deaths from COVID-19” which accounted for 6,324 deaths in Q4.

The number of deaths in 2020 was lower than the number of births (372,727), but natural increase (births minus deaths, +62,834) fell to its lowest annual level since “at least 1922.”

Here in Nova Scotia, 2020 births and deaths (or, as Statistics Canada calls them, “components of natural increase”) looked like this:

Components of natural increaseQ1 2020Q2 2020Q3 2020Q4 2020Total
Births 1,9402,0782,2461,9738,237
Deaths 2,5832,2962,3532,6219,853

During 2020, Nova Scotia recorded 65 COVID-related deaths (a 66th death was announced in 2021) or 0.7% of all deaths in 2020.

But deaths continued to outstrip births in the province in 2020, by a margin of 1,616.


Pop Clock

Canada’s population growth in 2020 was “vastly reduced” as a result of the pandemic, rising just 0.4% to 38,048,738, the lowest annual growth since 1945 (in number) and 1916 (in percent — growth that year was 0.3%), both of which, I am sure I don’t need to remind you, were years during which Canada was at war.

The statistics agency blamed reduced international migration for the low population growth:

International migration has accounted for more than three-quarters of the total population growth since 2016, reaching 85.7% in 2019. Following border and travel restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020, this percentage fell to 58.0%. Population increase through international migration in 2020 was over 80% lower than it was in 2019.

Canada welcomed 184,624 immigrants in 2020, the lowest in any calendar year since 1998.

The drop in migration was not “unique to Canada,” of course, even a country like New Zealand, much less hard hit by the pandemic than we were, experienced a 39.6% decline.

If you’re interested in further information about Canada’s population, might I recommend Canada’s population clock? It’s a Stats Canada product that allows you to watch the country’s population change in real time — a strangely mesmerizing thing to do.

It features a map of the country with provinces and territories that light up in different colors when they register a birth (blue), a death (red), the arrival of an immigrant (green), the departure of an emigrant (purple),  the arrival of a non-permanent resident (pale blue) or the arrival of an interprovincial migrant (orange). As I was writing this on Monday, for example, Nova Scotia lit up green at 7:54:17 AM EDT, indicating the arrival of an immigrant and the population figure dutifully rose to 982,257.

I’ve taken a screenshot but you really have to watch the clock in action to understand why I just spent 10 minutes staring at it:

Canada's population clock (real-time model)

Canada’s population clock (real-time model). Source: Statistics Canada 


Atlantic Canada

Here in the Atlantic Provinces, I’ve used Stats Canada’s quarterly population estimates to create this table, which compares Q4 2019 population numbers to those of Q4 2020. As you can see, NS, NB and PEI all recorded small increases while Newfoundland and Labrador recorded a loss (it was the only province or territory in Canada to do so):

ProvinceQ4 2019Q4 2020Change% Change
Newfoundland and Labrador524,137520,961



Prince Edward Island158,334159,7471,4130.9
Nova Scotia975,231979,0893,8580.4
New Brunswick780,154781,2821,1280.1

To put the Nova Scotia figures in context, this NS Department of Finance chart shows quarterly NS population growth from 1971 to the beginning of Q4 2020 (the most recent figures I could find, released in January 2021):

NS Population growth chart


Nova Scotia’s population dipped in Q4 2020, but the latest numbers from Statistics Canada show it hit a new high as of Q1 2021 of 979,449:


ProvinceQ1 2020Q2 2020Q3 2020Q4 2020Q1 2021
Nova Scotia975,898977,043979,351979,089979,449

(You can find more Nova Scotian — and Canadian — statistics on Statistic Canada’s Quarterly demographic estimates interactive dashboard.)


Closer to home

That said, the news for Cape Breton Island — which, in 2019, recorded its first growth in population in 20 years — was not so upbeat. The most up-to-date breakdown of Nova Scotia’s population by county I could find was to 1 July 2020 (released in January 2021 by the Department of Finance).

It showed population growth between 1 July 2019 and 1 July 2020 in 10 of 18 counties, led by Halifax at 2.0%.

But population declined year-on-year in the remaining eight counties, led by Victoria (-0.7%) and including Cape Breton (-0.3%), Inverness (0.3%) and Richmond (-0.2%).

Here’s the Nova Scotia population by county, as of 1 July 2020 (Halifax now accounts for 45.8% of the provincial total):

Nova Scotia population by county to 1 July 2020


And here are the “natural change” figures for Nova Scotia for the same period — births less deaths (spoiler alert: Cape Breton County’s is by far the worst):

Nova Scotia births less deaths 1 July 2019 to 1 July 2020


On the other hand, Cape Breton County saw an increase in immigration over this period, as did all 18 counties, although Halifax’s numbers (5,142) so completely dwarfed the others it got its own graph:

Nova Scotia Immigration 1 July 2019 to 1 July 2020

And Cape Breton County registered an increase in non-permanent residents (a category that would include students), as did Inverness (albeit not a very big one). Victoria and Richmond Counties registered declines:

NS non permanent residents 1 July 2019 to 1 July 2020

In terms of net interprovincial migration, Halifax was again the clear winner, attracting 1,584 people from other provinces and territories, although all counties reported some sort of increase. Here on the island, Cape Breton County apparently attracted seven people, Richmond 26, Victoria 29 and Inverness 53:

Nova Scotia Net Interprovincial Migration 1 July 2019 to 1 July 2020

The same basic picture emerges in terms of intraprovincial migration, meaning, people moving from one part of Nova Scotia to another. While Halifax netted 876 people (and Cumberland 91 and Antigonish 21) all other counties recorded net losses — Cape Breton’s the steepest, at 388:

Net Intraprovincial migration NS 1 July 2019 to 1 July 2020

You’re probably expecting me to tie this all up neatly now and make some kind of point, but I don’t really have one. I was just interested in the pandemic’s effects on population and thought I’d crunch and share a few numbers.

Apologies to anyone who was expecting a stirring conclusion but you obviously forgot who you were dealing with. I’m actually thinking of introducing a regular feature, modeled on the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books called “Draw Your Own Conclusion.”