Top view of sustainable community area among skyscrapers.

A just environmental transition for communities across Canada

Making the transition to a more sustainable economy can be more difficult for certain Canadian communities due to their reliance on high-emission industries. Can the transition be just and fair for all?

As we set our ambitious environmental goals and make our way in the transition to a greener, more sustainable economy, Canada will be faced with considerable challenges due to a heavier reliance on high-emission industries. The extent of that reliance does differ across the country and is more concentrated in certain provinces and communities. The higher the dependence, the more at risk businesses, workers and communities could be.

This had understandably led to the concept of “just transition” being championed and promoted across the country. The term just transition originated with the European labour movement. The International Labour Organization defines it as “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.” A key piece of the process of that just transition starts with an understanding of the baseline from which workers and communities enter that transition.

This paper aims to explore the characteristics and particularities of communities more reliant on heavy emitting industries. To answer in part, whether they do differ from the rest of the country, but also to provide information that could shape how we implement public policy around the just transition.

To do so, we have studied community-level data of the 2021 Census of population in Canada. We looked at census subdivisions and divided them into categories depending on the percentage of total wages coming from heavy-emission industries. From that point, we parsed through various indicators within the census, but also built indicators using other public data.

The findings are presented in the section below and we then expand on the possible public policy implications. This analysis shows the need to better understand our communities especially when we are implementing policies that could impact their livelihoods. It does highlight that we also need better tools to assess potential impacts and target current and future needs. Even if the environmental transition has yet to be felt in some communities, we need to better prepare from a public policy standpoint.


Demographics and households

Communities more dependent on heavy-emitting industries for their livelihood have seen smaller population growth. This trend has accelerated since 2016 and we should expect the same moving forward. With population growth being dependent on immigration, the fact that these communities have a smaller immigrant population means that future population is far from certain.

One interesting finding is that highly dependent communities are slightly younger and with a smaller proportion of the population of retirement age.  This might indicate that they have been able to attract working Canadians.

Another important consideration is that industries have located in proximity to indigenous communities. This leads to an over-representation of Indigenous populations within communities more dependent on heavy-emitting industries. This means that transition risk will be overwhelmingly felt by Canada’s Indigenous population.

Looking at households within these communities, we see very little differences with regards to the presence of children or household size. However, we notice differences regarding the percentage of multigenerational households which tends to be higher in less dependent communities, more than likely related to the greater presence of immigration. Overall, the presence of children all around does mean that workers are supporting families and we do not see more work-centred communities. The lower presence of multigenerational households in more dependent communities could mean that the mobility of families might be slightly higher.

Education, wage and work

The workforce also differs with relatively more people with a high school diploma or less and fewer holders of bachelor’s degree, masters or PhDs. Household wage growth has been more anemic and there are very few differences in seasonal work and self-employment as percentages of the overall workforce.

Remote work is twice less frequent in highly dependent communities and could very well be less possible for workers. Since the data was collected in the middle of the pandemic (2021), we could suspect that the remote work statistics might be an upper boundary.  Also, more workers commute within their census division. All this indicates stronger ties between workplace and living place in more dependent communities.

Furthermore, longer commutes are slightly less frequent and overall mobility tracked by the percentage of non-movers is slightly higher for more dependent communities.

Indicators by community and resilience

The information can also be presented at the census subdivision level. The following table does so for the largest communities that are either highly dependent or dependent on heavy-emission industries.

A few indicators are selected and presented in categories for each census subdivision with their implications for the resiliency of the community to the environmental transition. 
We have developed a relatively simply resiliency index to highlight the idea that certain communities are better positioned for the environmental transition. Without being the most extensive resiliency index, it does start the conversation around how to best assess and target communities to ensure a just transition.

We selected a series of indicators for which we associated a number (from 0 to 2) to each categorical value within each indicator. More resilient communities have a higher resiliency index. Resiliency is assumed to be higher within census subdivisions that are or have:

  • less dependency on heavy-emission industries,
  • a larger population, that is ideally growing,
  • fewer people with a high-school education or less,
  • closer to an urban centre,
  • access to more post-secondary education, 
  • more remote workers,
  • more affordable housing.  

Public policy implications and next steps

Some of the findings on community data are not new and are challenges that remote communities have struggled with for some time. It does highlight the importance of economic development and planning. And it might be an opportunity to champion bottom-up economic development instead of the usual emphasis on attracting foreign money and large businesses.

As highlighted by the resilience index, the transition capabilities will differ across Canada. For highly dependent census subdivisions, it might require an almost case-by-case approach to properly address transition risks and possibilities for the million Canadians living in these communities. One thing is certain, we will need to put forth an approach that prioritizes and aligns resources with the needs.

With the communities being further away from cities and less prone to remote work, the possibility to change jobs without moving might be few and far between. In conjunction, the levels of education within these communities being generally lower might further complicate job transitions or upskilling.

The discussions around the environmental transition generally avoid mentioning the potential job loss within heavy emitting industries. We can tiptoe around the issue, but it is bound to happen eventually, and certain communities could bear more significant burden. The solution brought forth is to create jobs within sustainable industries (Sustainable Jobs Plan), let’s hope there are geographical considerations within the Plan.   We need to be careful around public policy that could impact high-paid low-to-mid skill-level jobs, which are harder to come by outside of high-emission industries. Furthermore, access to postsecondary establishments (vocational schools, colleges or universities) or even online education will certainly be part of the solution and could be more targeted towards some communities.

The transition offers an opportunity to further implement Indigenous-led economic growth initiatives. With grassroots economic development, there will be inherent focus on Indigenous projects because of their importance within communities. Additionally, the significant proportion of resources located on Indigenous land is ideal for joint economic development of future projects. The development of economic opportunities is important to avoid signification youth migration to urban centres.

There are considerations outside of the unique scope of the environmental transition that do impact growth for these communities. For example, the idea of integrating immigration outside of cities in Canada is not new. It does, however, deserve more attention especially since we have ambitious targets and housing affordability issues in larger metropolitan areas. Economic integration could have even more focus for out-of-city job needs and the subsequent services. We also have to keep in mind that if the environmental transition implies more city-centric economic development, Canadians could lose out on some of the desired particularities of smaller, remote communities.