The results of the Town of Bonnyville’s census are in. As council suspected, their numbers don’t match up with the federal census.
In 2016, the federal government conducted a census, with the results indicating Bonnyville’s population dropped from 6,921 to 5,417 in just two years.
Upon seeing the data, Bonnyville Mayor Gene Sobolewski and the rest of council decided to conduct a census of their own. The municipal census results show the drop to be much less significant, with a total of 6,422 residents accounted for.
“We debated Statistics Canada when they came out with their results, and we were on track. We told them they were off with their numbers, and with our efforts and work we proved them wrong,” said Sobolewski.
If council had gone along with the original census, Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding to the town would have taken a hit. Because the funding is based largely on population, the difference would have been substantial.
“Each person represents around $300 in grant money to the town,” explained Bonnyville CAO Mark Power. “Our numbers were 1,005 people higher than theirs. That’s $300,000 in funding to the Town of Bonnyville.”
The town has also sent a letter to the Alberta Electoral Boundaries Commission with the new population count. Using information from the federal census, the commission drafted a report proposing changes to electoral boundaries across Alberta.
Council opposed the report due to the discrepancy between the federal census and the town’s findings.
Now that updated population information is available, council has taken the position that the initial report needs to be re-visited.
“Basically, this reflects that if they’re doing this (the report) strictly on the basis of population, the initial numbers they were using are incorrect, which is what we told the commission in the first place,” noted Sobolewski.
Another factor in the town’s decision to undertake a census of their own was reputation.
Council worried a massive decrease of residents could drive people away from the region.
“This is very important in terms of how we market our community and our region. With a massive reduction in population, it just doesn’t look good,” Sobolewski explained.
According to Sobolewski, another positive this time around is a drop in the shadow population. The shadow population represents the number of people staying in Bonnyville or using its services without registering in town.
While surrounding municipalities, such as the MD of Bonnyville, can take shadow populations into account, the town can’t.
“We’ve been arguing with the province for years to include our shadow population. The use of the services have an impact on the community,” Sobolewski said. “Bonnyville is in a unique situation because we’re a service hub. We have a massive service population. It has gone down, but we still have a shadow population that we’re not allowed to account for.”
Under current guidelines, for a shadow population to be included, it has to represent at least 10 per cent of a municipality’s total population. The format also doesn’t take into account people living outside of Bonnyville’s limits who use town services. According to Power, those people should be considered as part of the shadow population.
“It’s not just people in work camps. If you look at how many people are using the town’s hospital or school system, it’s far greater than the town and MD’s population combined,” noted Power.
When the next census rolls around, Power hopes the federal government changes the way they go about gathering data for rural areas.
“With the federal census there are only two callbacks. There’s very little incentive to do the groundwork necessary in a community like Bonnyville. People here do shift work, they’re not always home,” explained Power.
For now, the town is happy to have an accurate representation of their population on the record.
Sobolewski said, “Now we have a firm grip on what our population is. We do see there’s been a decline since the last census, but it’s not the radical drop they said we had.”