P.E.I. sees record growth, but Islanders are leaving at the highest rate in decades

Charlottetown Airport has been busy both with people arriving on P.E.I., and people leaving. (Maggie Brown/CBC - image credit)
Charlottetown Airport has been busy both with people arriving on P.E.I., and people leaving. (Maggie Brown/CBC - image credit)

The most recent population report from Statistics Canada shows a strangely paradoxical trend for P.E.I.

The province grew 4.3 per cent in 2022, adding more than 7,000 residents, bringing the total population to 173,954  as of Jan. 1. It is easily the fastest-growing province in Canada, at a time when the country itself is experiencing record growth.

P.E.I. population

But at the same time, people are leaving the Island at a pace not seen since 1981. Almost 4,200 people left the Island for other provinces in 2022, a 27 per cent increase over the average of the previous five years.

"A trend like that kind of makes sense," said Ryan MacRae of Cooper Institute, an education and community development group in Charlottetown.

Submitted by Ryan MacRae
Submitted by Ryan MacRae

"[There's] a really big focus on population growth while at the same time not looking at supports to sustain that population."

Islanders heading to new provinces

Out-migration from P.E.I. jumped in the middle of the first decade of this century, moving from about 2,500 a year to regularly more than 3,000.

Out-migration from P.E.I.

This was partly due to increased immigration starting around 2008, and the province's inability to convince those new Canadians to stay. A large majority of immigrants who land in P.E.I. still tend to move on to other provinces within five years.

There is no breakdown yet for immigrant departures in 2022, but there are indications that departing immigrants are not the source of the increase in out-migration last year.

The provinces that saw the biggest increases as a destination for people leaving P.E.I. were Alberta, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. These are not typical destinations for recent immigrants, representing fewer than 10 per cent of departures.

From 2015 to 2020, the biggest destinations for immigrants leaving P.E.I. were Ontario (56 per cent) and B.C. (30 per cent). In 2022, the number of Islanders who left for B.C. was actually below average, and the number leaving for Ontario was up only 10 per cent.

Meanwhile, the number leaving for other Maritime provinces was up 40 per cent, and the number leaving for Alberta was almost double the recent average.

Finding opportunities elsewhere

It is not surprising that a broad spectrum of people should be leaving the province, said MacRae.

"There's a lack of housing, we're also seeing it's nearly impossible to see a doctor. You know, these aren't things that make people want to stay," he said.

"Unless we see these investments the government needs to make, it's going to be a lot more chaotic here. It's going to be harder to find homes for people, it's going to be harder to see a doctor."

Some people may be forced out as the cost of living increases while wages remain the lowest in the country. But for others it is about value for money.

Alexandra Sorensen enrolled in a two-year graduate program at the University of Toronto last fall. As a student, she could have retained her Island residency, but she chose to leave the province where she grew up.

Submitted by Alexandra Sorensen
Submitted by Alexandra Sorensen

Sorensen is familiar with Toronto — she lived there for four years when she was younger — and she fell in love with it.

"Even though I love P.E.I. I would way rather pay expensive rent in Toronto than on P.E.I.," she said.

"[P.E.I. is] a little bit cheaper, but it's still pretty expensive, and I just thought there'd be a lot more opportunities in Toronto so it was kind of worth it."

And it is not just about work opportunities. A city of three million offers cultural opportunities and a diversity of people that can't be matched in a province the size of P.E.I., she said.

Life on the West Coast

Emma Goodwin, like Sorensen, moved away from P.E.I. for graduate studies. She went to high school on the Island and did her undergraduate degree at UPEI, but moved to B.C. in August 2021.

"I do research in women's health and there's really not a lot of options in Canada but definitely not really any options in P.E.I. to pursue that type of research at a graduate level," she said.

Submitted by Emma Goodwin
Submitted by Emma Goodwin

Vancouver is an expensive city, but she decided to make her move permanent because she is now making connections and building a network that she believes will help launch her career.

She has fond memories of P.E.I., and the right career opportunity could tempt her back to the Island at some point, she said, but the state of the Island's housing market is a real concern.

"I don't want to say that the situation in Vancouver is easy by any means, but I think there's just a lot more options obviously, because it's a bigger city," said Goodwin.

"For example, I have two roommates now so we were looking for a three bedroom, and I had the same situation in Charlottetown where I had two roommates looking for a three bedroom, and it was much easier to find somewhere here that was within our budget and was a nice place to live."

Mobility for renters is something the Cooper Institute hears a lot of complaints about, MacRae said.

While average rents may be higher in other cities, low vacancy rates combined with a smaller stock of apartments can severely restrict choices. In October, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation measured a zero per cent vacancy rate for three-bedroom apartments in the city of Charlottetown, and zero per cent for studio apartments for the whole province.

Housing shortfall continuing

MacRae said some things are improving on the Island, albeit slowly.

It is getting easier to use public transit in and around Charlottetown, but schedules are attached to a 9 to 5 Monday to Friday workday, leaving few options for those looking to go shopping or eat out after work, or for shift workers.

Child-care costs are going down, but again the majority of centres cater to more traditional working hours and there are few options for shift workers, he said.

But finding a place to live remains the top issue, and that isn't getting any better.

While the province grew by more than 7,000 in 2022, the construction industry completed just 961 new housing units. Based on an average of 2.3 occupants per home, as measured in the census, that's space for 2,210 people.

Like Goodwin, Sorensen said life might lead her back to the Island, but she can't see it happening soon.

"I do still love P.E.I. and I definitely will visit for summers and maybe move back eventually when I'm older," she said.

"But I do think that Toronto is where I'm going to be for quite a while."