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Clues from the Census about Northern communities

To promote independence, good health and social activities, Northern communities should be replanned
David Robinson, Laurentian University

As Statistics Canada dribbles out 2016 census data on age and sex, some clues about the future of Northern communities are beginning to emerge.

Across the North, women outnumber men by a small margin. (In Sudbury, for some reason, men outnumber women.)

Among seniors, women outnumber men in every district except Manitoulin.

As we make plans for an aging population, we need to keep in mind that older women make up our fastest growing demographic.

We already knew that more Northerners are over 65 than the rest of the province. One in five Northerners was over 65 in 2016, compared to one in six in the rest of the province.

We now know the percentage is up more than two per cent since 2011 as the front edge of the baby boom moves into retirement.

We also know that the southern parts of the northeast have more seniors. Only Kenora is younger than the provincial average.

By the way, it is only due to the Kenora District that the population of Northern Ontario grew at all between 2011 and 2016.

Stats Can reports that Kenora’s population grew by 13.8 per cent.

That is a bit odd. It suggests that the 14,095 women between 15 and 50 had well over 8,000 children in the five years between 2011 and 2016.

The Census found only 4,962 children under five, so it is more likely that the Kenora boom is made up of people Stats Can forgot to count in 2011.

The best guess is that Kenora grew by less than seven per cent and annual population growth in Northern Ontario was slightly negative.

Negative growth isn’t bad by itself, but it does have important implications.

One is that kids will leave, and another is that the average age will keep rising faster than for the rest of the country.

Fortunately many in our swelling elderly cohort have pensions that come from outside of the region.

Only 65 per cent of Northerners are of prime working age now, compared to 67 per cent for Ontario as a whole. That’s more than three per cent fewer potential workers to take care of 19 per cent more elderly.

Without transfers, Northerners would have to be 25 per cent more productive than southerners to achieve the same standard of living as southerners have.

But let’s get back to sex. Across the region there are eight senior women for every seven senior men. After 75 here are 14 women for every 10 men.

The ratios are even higher in Nipissing and Greater Sudbury, but overall they are lower than the provincial average.

It turns out there are relatively fewer older women in the North than in the south.

Women are more likely than men to move south or to urban areas as they age.

As a result, Greater Sudbury, the largest urban region, for example, has a higher percentage of women over 70 than any other Northern census district.

According to a Stats Can study on senior women (there is no study on senior men), many women will be forced to serve as caretakers for husbands who are often a bit older than they are.

The reverse is less common.

The same study says that women are more likely to suffer from injuries, and are more likely to be inactive than men of the same age.

Northern winters can be a serious health hazard. To promote independence, good health and social activities, communities should be replanned to make walking attractive and safe for women.

Because women tend to outlive men, fewer older women will be in couples.

Many women in rural areas will want to move to the urban centres or to leave the district later in life. The popularity of retirement communities in some areas is evidence that many seniors want to live where other seniors are.

To help hold seniors, Northern communities might want to encourage the development of seniors’ neighbourhoods near commercial centres and services.

These neighbourhoods would inevitably attract more women than men. Since seniors are more likely than average to volunteer, these neighbourhoods will probably become hubs of community activity.

Smart planning in the face of trends revealed by the latest census could produce a new kind of Northern neighbourhood — one run by senior women and healthier for everyone.