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Red Deer mayor not conceding third biggest city status

Lethbridge says its 2023 census proves it is bigger than Red Deer
Red Deer’s population is 100,844, making it Alberta’s third largest city, according to the 2021 Statistics Canada census. (Advocate file photo)

Alberta’s closest fought population contest is heating up.

Shortly after its 2023 census showed Lethbridge had 106,550 people, Mayor Blaine Hyggen wasted no time claiming “bragging rights” as Alberta’s third largest city.

Not so fast, says Red Deer Mayor Ken Johnston.

“Blaine is one of my dearest colleagues. I knew him as a councillor … and we touch base every three months.”

But … “he likes to have some umbrage, I’ll say, at my expense when he touts around some of these population figures.”

Johnston has respectfully tried to convince his mayoral counterpart of the error of his ways.

“I tell him. I say, ‘Blaine, look I love (your) city. I used to live there way back in the day. But there’s no sense in saying you’re the third largest city.’

“The federal census is the barometer. That’s who’s wearing the stripes on the field in terms of refereeing the process here.”

Using the gold standard of the federal head count, Red Deer maintains a narrow population lead. As of 2021, Red Deer’s population was at 100,844, up only a few hundred people from the 100,418 counted in 2016, but still more than Lethbridge’s 98,406. However, Lethbridge is making up ground quickly, growing by more than 6,000 between the two censuses.

The Alberta Dashboard, a provincial government municipal data deep dive, also lists Red Deer, as of 2022, as third largest with a population of 105,883 compared with Lethbridge’s 104,254.

Perhaps Red Deerians can be forgiven for being a little sensitive about population rankings. The 2021 federal count was a welcome return to the population podium after this city fell to fourth place and a participation medal.

Red Deer lost third place in 2019 after each community did a municipal census. Lethbridge tallied 101,482 residents, ahead of Red Deer’s count of 101,002.

Johnston concedes it has been a neck-and-neck race for quite some time. And the mayors have put who is number three in the agree-to-disagree column in municipal relations.

“Blaine and I shoot this back and forth all the time. It’s a bit of game-playing. It’s good sportsmanship. But I think if Lethbridge looks at the official documents and who’s keeping the real score. It’s Red Deer, not Lethbridge” in third.

2019 was the last municipal census held in Red Deer. The pandemic interrupted census taking and council has so far not budgeted for a new count.

So, will Lethbridge’s insistence it is number three mean Red Deer will dispatch waves of enumerators to settle the question?

Johnston doubts council will rise to the bait.

“I feel like it, to be honest with you. But I don’t want to direct tax money just because I want to thump my good colleague down in Lethbridge.

“Council will make a decision on whether we go forward or whether we hold until the federal census (in 2026).

“If there was any material impact on our ability to grants or funding or whatever we would accelerate it,” he added. “But I don’t feel that today and I don’t think the motivation of one-upmanship would make me want to jump into a census, that’s for sure.”

A financial review is coming in January, but Johnston said he would be “shocked” if administration was proposing a 2024 census.

“I could see the possibility when we do the 2025-26 budget, which would be in November of next year. If there’s any need to update the population numbers from a support perspective or a grant perspective, it would certainly come in the fall budget next year.”

Johnston can only speculate on what a Red Deer census outcome would be. But given similar growth in the communities, he is quietly confident Red Deer would come out on top.

Meanwhile, the hits keep coming.

A survey that came out this week listing Canada’s 10 top desirable home hot spots ranks Lethbridge eighth, one place ahead of Central Alberta, including Red Deer. Adding insult to injury, it calls Lethbridge Alberta’s third largest city.

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