Charting a new course for Winnipeg

A new effort to brighten Winnipeg’s future gets under way in January. That’s when a new private-sector led initiative called “Yes! Winnipeg” will get up and running, mandated to pursue economic growth and a new spirit of prosperity for our city.

It’s the latest in a series of efforts over the years to revive the fortunes of a city which went through a period of stress and struggle that lasted a generation. Winnipeg had begun the ’70s as the country’s fifth-largest metropolitan area and the economic capital of the Canadian Prairies, with a population one-tenth larger than Edmonton’s and one-third larger than Calgary’s.

By 2001, Winnipeg was the country’s eighth-largest metro area and had been deposed as a regional economic capital by both Calgary and Edmonton, which by that point were both 40 percent larger than Winnipeg in terms of population.

The decline appears to have stopped. Statistics Canada projects that Winnipeg will still be #8 in 2031, with a metro population of about 884,000.

Winnipeg will obviously be a somewhat bigger city in 2031 than it is today, but will still be a secondary market a mere one-tenth the size of metro Toronto (8.9 million), and much smaller than Montreal (4.9 million), Vancouver (3.5 million), Calgary (1.9 million), Ottawa-Gatineau (1.6 million) or Edmonton (1.5 million).

The days of grandeur — the days when Winnipeg was one of Canada’s most important cities — are obviously not coming back. But there are still things that can be done to become a more pleasant place to live in the decades ahead.

I copied and organized some of the data that Statistics Canada keeps on its 2006 Community Profiles web site and set out to look for the factors that make some cities more vibrant than others — younger, better educated and more attractive to people moving back and forth within Canada.

From the sample of 25 cities I looked at, here’s what I learned:

1. Keeping a healthy balance of young and old is crucial. If you follow the news, you probably have heard about politicians being concerned about an aging population. These concerns are well founded, and not just because of the impact of soaring health care costs that we keep hearing about. In the 2006 census, cities with older populations tended to be worse off in several ways:

  • Older cities tend to have lower household incomes, and working people make up a smaller percentage of the overall population. (Keep in mind that working people pay more tax and drive consumer spending, so an aging population is detrimental for both government and business.)
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  • Older cities tend to have weaker housing markets — rents are lower, monthly home owner expenditures are lower, and turnover is lower. Low turnover also contributes to some degree to a larger number of homes requiring major repairs.
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  • Older cities tend to place heavier financial demands on federal and provincial governments due to larger numbers of people relying on redistributed income to survive. Thus, cities that allow their populations to age will find it much more difficult in the coming decades to satisfy a public that wants quality services and fiscal responsibility and no tax increases, all at the same time.
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Fortunately, Winnipeg is doing not too badly in this regard. In 2006, the median age of Winnipeg’s 694,665 residents (38.8 years) was slightly lower than the national median age of 39.5 years. Keeping that median age down, however, will require us to:

  • Continue welcoming large numbers of immigrants to our community (a good thing if you think diversity is kind of cool, as I do), given the reluctance of other Canadians to move here and the dubious record of various “baby bonus” schemes tried around the world.
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  • Create rewarding jobs to encourage locally raised young people to stay here — jobs in business services and the sciences that are both interesting and lucrative.
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  • Create fun, interesting lifestyle options to keep people here

2. Education needs to remain a priority. For years, Manitoba has had a problem with its troubling high school dropout rate, which intensified the gap between rich and poor in Winnipeg as promising job opportunities for those with less than a Grade 12 education became fewer and further between. It also took a toll in other ways. For governments, high school dropouts pay less tax and put more strain on health care and social services budgets. For businesses, high school dropouts mean fewer discretionary spending dollars to go around, and it makes Winnipeg a less attractive place to invest or to hire. And it’s demoralizing for everyone.

Increasing the number of post-secondary graduates is also important for creating the kinds of business and science-related jobs that give a city a sense of vibrancy. Across the 25 cities examined, a higher percentage of the population with a university degree, for example, tends to mean that:

  • Reliance on social assistance and other government transfers goes down, which frees up government funds for other priorities.
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  • Use of public transit systems goes up, reducing reliance on subsidies.
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  • Jobs in management, the sciences, and in arts, culture, recreation and sport become more plentiful.
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  • Demand for housing increases. (A one-point increase in the percentage of people aged 15 years and over with a university degree is associated with an increase of more than $15,000 in average home values.)

The key to fixing this problem will be to start children on the path from an early age to completing high school and then going on to post-secondary education. This will be a challenge in the inner city where many families have no history of post-secondary education and where young people have less exposure to the working world and to the career options available to them than do their suburban counterparts.

3. Becoming a less manufacturing-focused town will be an important part of making Winnipeg a more attractive place to live. To get a better sense of what divides the cities that young people dream of living in someday from those they don’t dream of living in (or desperately want to get out of), I looked for factors across the 25 cities examined that had some relation to the percentage of citizens who lived in another province or territory five years earlier.

Unfortunately, one of the most important factors was geography — the one factor that Winnipeg can do absolutely nothing about. Using a scale of 0 to 100, where both St. John’s, Newfoundland and Victoria, B.C. at the far ends of the country represented a “100” and the half-way point in between at approximately 88°W longitude represented a “0”, I noticed that the closer a city was to the middle of the country, the smaller the concentration of expats and returnees from other parts of Canada.

This, at least, is consistent with what we already know about those who move away to pursue jobs in the energy industry or to live in a less extreme mountain or coastal climate. It’s also consistent with the problems that the U.S. Midwest has had in terms of preventing its young and well educated from being drawn away from the interior of the continent toward the peripheries.

The other factor that makes a big difference here is how much a city’s economy relies on manufacturing. Manufacturing towns tend to be the worst at drawing in returnees and people looking for a better way of life.

Rightly or wrongly, manufacturing is seen as offering little in the way of secure, well-paying or mentally stimulating jobs — and that drives people away. A little more than 45 percent of the difference between cities in terms of the size of the expat and returnee community can be attributed to how much of the workforce is engaged in manufacturing, making this just as important as a city’s geographical location.

  • Among the 25 cities examined, 12 cities had more than 10 percent of their workforce in manufacturing, including Winnipeg at 11 percent. The average size of the expat and returnee community in these 12 cities: 1.3 percent of the population.
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  • Among the 13 cities where less than 10 percent of the workforce was involved in manufacturing, the expat and returnee community constituted, on average, 4.5 percent of the population.

This is not to suggest that it would be healthy to have the same fate befall Winnipeg as befell other Midwestern cities that became ghost towns as manufacturers disappeared. A better way to reduce our reliance on manufacturing is to change the local labour force by setting people on the right course toward higher education while they’re still young. As long as we are the high school dropout capital of Canada — or even a serious contender for that dubious honour — our ability to shift our economy away from manufacturing and toward jobs in the business services and science sectors will be severely compromised.

Though Winnipeg will likely never regain the status it enjoyed as recently as the early ’70s as the economic capital of the Canadian Prairies, I’ve sought to outline some of the changes that could be made to at least allow us Winnipeggers to have a better way of life and to start to turn our city’s reputation around.

It’s shorter on specifics than I would have liked — there’s only so much one blogger can do — but if it shifts the terms of reference away from the idea that all that Winnipeg needs to get out of neutral is a new stadium, an NHL team, an Ikea store or some other bauble instead of deeper structural changes, it will have been worth it.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

4 Responses to Charting a new course for Winnipeg

  1. Fat Arse says:

    So I awaken this morn – make one cup of Java AND then I read this. Thanks a lot! Now my wee brain is gonna be pondering your points all day… argghhh…. me too stupid to distill all of them on just one-cuppa-Joe so I will have to revisit it later. But one thing did strike me, did you find “drop-out capital” data at Stats-Can website? If so, could you post the link – it is something I’ve always suspected and it intrigues me.

    Gotta go get more Joe now… brain hurts thanks to you… so many serious questions at the start of a day 😉

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Sorry about that, FA! (Wow, you’re up early!)

    Here are the calculations I derived from StatsCan’s community profiles. Winnipeg ranked near the bottom overall in 2006 and had the lowest high school completion rate among cities with populations of 500,000 and over:

    CITY High School graduates (% of 15+) Non-Graduates (% of 15+)
    Victoria 84.6 15.4
    Vancouver 82.7 17.3
    Québec 82.5 17.5
    Ottawa–Gatineau 82.2 17.8
    Calgary 81.9 18.1
    Halifax 80.5 19.5
    Toronto 80.3 19.7
    London 78.6 21.4
    Regina 78.3 21.7
    St. John’s 78.3 21.7
    Edmonton 78.3 21.7
    Windsor 78.0 22.0
    Montréal 78.0 22.0
    Saskatoon 77.9 22.1
    Chicoutimi–Jonquière 77.6 22.4
    Trois-Rivières 77.5 22.5
    Hamilton 77.4 22.6
    Oshawa 77.2 22.8
    Sherbrooke 77.0 23.0
    Winnipeg 76.8 23.2
    Saint John 76.7 23.3
    Kitchener 76.2 23.8
    St. Catharines–Niagara 75.9 24.1
    Thunder Bay 74.6 25.4
    Greater Sudbury 74.3 25.7

  3. Fat Arse says:

    Vfr7,

    Thanks muchly for the data. It is greatly appreciated. Curious how high Calgary’s retention rate is… guess it’s a function of greater affluence, or maybe the the fact it has a lower percentage of First Nations and immigrant children?

  4. Pingback: Charting a new course for #Winnipeg via The View from Seven | DR.Bob's "Virtual" Computer Emporium

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