Two Elders, identified in NWT Archives records as Judith Charlo and a person with the last name Naedzo, in Yellowknife in May 1971. NWT Archives/Rene Fumoleau fonds/N-1995-002: 2498
A shift is taking place in the Northwest Territories that will be vitally important in the years ahead and probably isn’t a surprise: the age of the average resident is increasing.
In a summary published to its website at the start of October, the NWT Bureau of Statistics reported that the median age of an NWT resident rose from 32.5 to 35.8 between July 2012 and July 2022.
The median age across Canada as a whole rose less drastically, from 40.1 to 41.0, over the same period.
The bureau says the NWT’s population of seniors increased by 68.8 percent between 2012 and 2022, behind only the Yukon’s 72.1 percent. Nationwide, numbers of seniors increased by 38 percent.
The rest of this article may sound familiar. We initially published this in January 2022 but have updated it on October 4 to include the new NWT Bureau of Statistics data.
(Let’s face it, you’re getting older. You probably forgot you read this nine months ago.)
In this article, we’ll examine the data in more detail and you’ll see just how big the NWT’s shift in age has been over the past 20 years.
To start, here’s how the Northwest Territories population looked in 2021. We’ve broken it down by gender (as represented in NWT government data) and by age.
That chart shows some waves of population relatively clearly: one for people aged around 30, a smaller one in the early forties, and another in the late fifties that is slightly more pronounced among males than females.
To assess how the population of the territory is changing over time, we’ve created the same chart for every year since 2001. You can watch them in sequence and see those waves move.
The biggest change that takes place over that 20-year period may not have been immediately obvious to you as you watch the gradual progress of those waves, year by year.
Now try looking at just the data for 2001 and the data for 2021, cutting out the years in between.
Put them side by side and the difference is much clearer: what was a boom in kids and thirty-somethings two decades ago is now a bulge in residents in their late twenties and late fifties. The bars shift down to the lower-middle reaches of the chart.
As a whole, we’re getting older.
The NWT versus Canada
We have known this for some time, and we are not alone.
Worldwide, many populations are getting older. So how closely does the change in the NWT match what has been happening across the rest of Canada?
The chart below shows you the proportion of the NWT population that belonged to different age groups in 2001, compared to the population of Canada at the same time.
When you’re ready, use the arrow to see the same statistics for 2021 – and the way the percentage share of each age group changes.
Canada is getting older. You can tell because, by 2021, the red bars have shifted further to the right. Seniors make up a larger proportion of the country’s population than they did two decades ago.
And while the NWT still has a younger population than the Canadian average (the territory’s population remains the second-youngest in Canada on average, behind only Nunavut), you can see from the NWT’s bars that the change since 2001 is significant.
The NWT bars now more closely resemble those of Canada as a whole.
In 2001, the territory had far more young people, proportionally, than the nationwide average, and you only had to hit 40 before that changed. From 40 onward, the NWT had fewer people proportionally than most of Canada.
Now, you have to get to 60 before the same thing happens. The NWT in 2021 has more people aged 40 to 60, proportionally, than Canada as a whole.
That change has taken place because demographics are shifting both in the territory and across the country, but they’re not shifting at the same rate. In terms of age, the youthful NWT is slowly catching up to old Canada.
Communities aren’t shifting equally
Population data in the Northwest Territories allows us to look at the demographics more closely by examining changes in each community.
Overall, the territory’s population has grown from 40,845 in 2001 to 45,504 in 2021. (That’s about half as fast as the population of Canada as a whole has grown in the same time frame.)
Here’s how the population of each NWT community has increased or decreased in that time, measured as a percentage of that community’s 2001 population.
The first thing you’ll see is that in smaller communities, it only takes a few people to create a significant percentage shift – so treat the data with care for small places. Enterprise at the top of the list, grew from 68 to 116 people, a near-doubling of a small community. Colville Lake went from 115 people to 159, and Sambaa K’e from 76 to 98.
Yellowknife, as the largest community in the territory by a distance, clearly added a lot of people to finish fourth on this list. The city grew from 17,776 in 2001 to 21,775 in 2021.
At the other end, Wrigley went from 189 residents in 2001 to 122 in 2021 according to the NWT Bureau of Statistics. Kakisa and Sachs Harbour lost 13 and 16 people respectively – again, large percentage changes from small shifts owing to the small size of those communities.
The data also allows us to look at how the number of seniors in each community has changed. Studying this shows us where future crunches may be more likely to come in terms of services and accommodation for people as they age.
For the purposes of this article, we’re calling anyone aged 60 or over a senior. (If you are offended, we apologize.)
This next chart looks at the percentage of each community’s population formed by people aged 60 or older.
The dark blue line shows where that percentage stood for each community in 2001. The lighter colour shows the percentage-point change in the 20 ensuing years. (The proportion of seniors in every NWT community has grown.)
Let’s take Nahanni Butte as an example – again, a small community, with 101 residents in 2021. Twenty years ago, 9.9 percent of Nahanni Butte’s residents were 60 or older. In 2021, that figure had grown by 13.9 percentage points to 23.8 percent of the community’s population.
The presence of the Dehcho at the top of the list is striking.
Five of the top six communities are in the Dehcho (Jean Marie River is too small to have published data available for this age group.) In other words, the proportion of seniors to other residents is at its highest in the Dehcho and, with the exception of Wrigley, that proportion has grown significantly in the past 20 years.
Twenty years ago, other than Wrigley, no Dehcho community would have made the top six.
Having an ageing population does not automatically translate to a local requirement for more services like long-term care beds, for example, or at-home care. Many older residents eventually move south, leaving the NWT’s comparatively harsh climate, and many of the territory’s facilities for older people remain centralized in hub communities, though the NWT government has made the ability to age in place (remaining in your home community for as long as possible) a priority.
But the shift of the past 20 years demonstrates that significantly more older people remain in the territory, and in need of services, for longer than in the past.
In 2021, there were 6,920 people aged 60 or over in the NWT. In 2001, that figure was just 2,541. This is the shift to which the territorial government must adapt its services. (If you’re interested, you can read a comprehensive 2015 review of long-term care in the NWT that goes into detail regarding how demand is expected to evolve.)
Several years ago, the NWT Bureau of Statistics was asked to estimate how the territory’s population will change by the year 2035.
The bureau concluded that we can expect the number of NWT residents aged 70 or over to be around 5,400 by 2035. In 2021, that figure was 2,300.
The bureau’s 2035 projection is for Yellowknife alone to have some 2,800 residents aged 70-plus, more than can be found across the whole territory right now.
That means you can expect our first population chart – like a few other things – to sag a little over time.