Census says Prince Rupert still shrinking, Mayor skeptical of data

Rupert's population depletion has slowed significantly, but the mayor has doubts about the data and thinks the city has actually grown.

Statistic’s Canada released the data from the latest national census on Wednesday and while Prince Rupert’s population did decrease between 2006 and 2011, but not by much.

According to the census, Prince Rupert’s population fell 13,392 to 13,052, a decrease of 2.5 per cent. That in of itself is not good news as it shows the city’s population in not growing, but if you compare the numbers to previous censuses a different picture emerges. In the 2001 to 2006 census, Prince Rupert ‘s population shrunk by 12.5 per cent, and between 1996 and 2001 the population dropped by almost the same amount: 12.4 per cent.

So, while StatsCan says that Prince Rupert’s population may not have grown, the rate at which the community is losing people has slowed significantly. According to the Prince Rupert Economic Development Corporation, it’s no surprise that less people are leaving town since the Fairview Container Terminal opened.

“It’s not ideal circumstances in the fact that the population has decreased, but when you look at the long-term trend you see a slow-down in the decline . . . with a 9 per cent difference that steepness isn’t there anymore. I think you can contribute a lot of that to a rebound in the economy related to the development of the port in the past few years,” says the economic development officer Dereck Baker.

But not everyone is happy with the figures being provided. The mayor of Prince Rupert, Jack Mussallem, isn’t convinced that the numbers truly reflect the reality in the city. The numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, says Mussallem, because this was the first census where the data collection was not mandatory and the questions scaled back to make them less intrusive.

The debate over the “short-form census” was one of the biggest political drama’s of the last federal parliament. The ruling Conservatives proposed – and ultimately succeeded  — to make the scale the census down in order to make it less intrusive into the lives of ordinary Canadians.

The Opposition, StatsCan and other organizations that depend on the data the census provides argued that that by making the census voluntary and less detailed would create less reliable data for the government and others to use. The sentiment was so strong that director of StatsCan at the time, Munir Sheikh, very publicly resigned over the issue.

While most concerns about accuracy were about more detailed data such as national poverty levels, Mussallem says he doubts that the short-form census can be trusted even when it comes to local population levels.

“I wonder about how thorough they were. Had they had more people here doing follow-up as if it were mandatory, I think the numbers wouldn’t have changed so much, ” says Mussallem.

“Over a whole community of 12,000 people with a 300 difference [since 2006], you could lose that in the transient population we have during the summer season with the fishing going on . . . I question the accuracy of it and wonder really if the population over all isn’t that much bigger.”

The mayor says that the city has been getting mixed messages about the state of its population. During the spring of 2011, the mayor says that the city was congratulated by the Provincial Government for growing the population by 996 people.

Not even an population analyst from the province’s own statistics agency, BC Statistics, could say where that figure came from. According to their numbers, Prince Rupert’s population at the end of last year was 12,935 which represented a 0.4 per cent drop since 2006. While not as big a drop as what the census says, it certainly is not an increase of just almost 1,000 people.

The fact that the figures are different isn’t surprising since the two studies use different methods of determining how big the population is. BC Statistics makes their estimate based largely on the number of hydro hook-ups and health coverage applications from a given area, while the official census is not an estimate but a count; meaning that its number is based on the information given in the filled-out census questionnaires.

Being a count rather than an estimate doesn’t make the numbers perfect though, StatsCan says that people can be missed, especially if they don’t have a permanent address.

The reason the census population data matters is because it determines where and how much government money flows. Everything from federal transfers to municipal policy planning are all affected in one way or another by the census data.

“The census is important because in terms of policing costs, in terms of how much money the City of Prince Rupert is allocated from various entities are based on census figures. These census figures could be a little light,” says Mussallem.