Deaths exceeded births in BC for the first time on record
Thanks to an aging population and two public health crises, the number of people dying in BC outstripped births for the first time in 2021.
Two public health crises have led to a British Columbia first last year: for the first time in the province’s recorded history, more people died than were born.
In 2021, there were 603 more deaths than births. BC’s death rates have been on the rise since at least 2016, when the toxic drug crisis was declared a public health emergency. The pandemic has only sped up that increase. But the two emergencies aren’t the only reason BC’s deaths have eclipsed the number of new babies, though. An aging population has also increased the number of people dying, and decreased the number giving birth.
The number of deaths topped 40,000 for the first time in 2020 (a milestone that births hit four decades ago). The number skyrocketed again last year, with more than 44,000 people dying in 2021.
BC’s accelerating deaths
Throughout BC’s history, birth rates have been on a bumpy road as cultural and economic changes made babies more or less popular. (Death rates, although more stable, have also changed in response to medical advances and social support systems.)
At the height of BC’s baby boom—roughly between 1952 and 1960—three times more babies were born than people died. Since then, the birth rate has steadily fallen. Death rates, on the other hand, have stayed more or less the same—until recently.
BC started to collect reliable death figures in the 1940s, and soon after rates began to fall. From 1976 to 2014—nearly 40 years—around seven of every 1,000 residents died each year. (Both birth and death rates are based on a resident’s home address, and not where the birth or death took place.)
With births exceeding the number of deaths, BC’s population has been largely self-sustaining: even in the last 30 years, there had still been roughly one-and-a-half babies born for every death, despite decreasing birth rates.
But that self-sustaining pattern may now be over. In 2014, after a period of relative stability, the death rate began to rise again. Last year, it reached its highest point since 1966: 8.6 deaths for every 1,000 people. It was also the first time the death rate had eclipsed the birth rate.
The COVID pandemic and the opioid crisis are partly responsible for the flip. Since it began in March 2020, COVID has killed more than 3,000 people and likely indirectly resulted in the deaths of many others. (Roughly 450 people died in 2021 due to COVID.) The opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2016; since then, 9,410 people have died of toxic drugs, including more than 2,200 deaths in 2021. Together, the crises were responsible for at least one in every 16 deaths in 2021.
The public health emergencies are visible in charts showing how BC’s birth and death rates have shifted. In 2020 and 2021, the increase in the number of deaths was particularly stark.
More people were dying even before these two emergencies came into BC’s public consciousness. That is, in part, because of BC’s aging population. According to the latest census data, the average BC resident was 43 in 2021, compared to 41 years old 10 years earlier.
The number of seniors in the province is also on the rise, doubling in the last decade. In 2021, people 65 and older made up 20% of the population, compared to just 16% a decade ago.
Curious where the Fraser Valley’s babies are being born? We mapped that data in March. We also revealed how babies make up a large chunk of migrants moving to the region here.
What’s going on in the Fraser Valley
In the Fraser Valley, deaths are on track to eventually outpace the number of births. But they aren’t there yet. Across most of the valley, there were still more births than deaths in 2021, with some communities seeing an unusually high proportion of babies.
Langley, for instance, had the valley’s highest birth rate and lowest death rate in 2021. It’s also the only Fraser Valley community where the birth-to-death gap widened in 2021. (That may have been the result of a fluke baby boom, since 2021 was the first year that happened. Only time will tell if the community continues to see an increased number of births.)
In Abbotsford and Mission, births are also still outpacing deaths. But that’s not the case in Chilliwack, Agassiz, and Hope.
In Hope, deaths have exceeded births since 2007 at least. And the divide is only getting larger. Although birth rates have increased slightly from 2014, it’s not nearly enough to make up for the increasing deaths: Hope saw nearly two deaths for every birth in 2021. Because it’s a small community, rates vary considerably from year to year, but 2021 saw the community record its highest number of deaths ever.
Like the province as a whole, demographics play a key role in Hope’s growing deaths. The municipality is one of the oldest in the Fraser Valley, with residents having an average age of nearly 50. Nearly one-third of the population is over the age of 65, and that proportion has risen sharply in the last decade.
In Langley—where births continue to outpace deaths—only one in five residents are seniors, and the average age is 41.
But demographics aren’t the only cause of Hope’s high death rate. The community has also consistently had one of the highest toxic drug overdose rates in the province, as well as some of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the valley. (BC does not release COVID-19 death data at a community level.) In 2021, eight people died of toxic drugs in Hope. That accounted for roughly one of every 19 deaths that year.
The community is also struggling in other ways: its residents have a lower average income than the rest of BC, according to 2016 data, and they are more likely to be paying more than 30% of their income on housing. They also are more likely to have chronic disease and high infant mortality rates. Meanwhile, at the other end of the valley in Langley, residents are wealthier than the provincial average and adults are less likely to be unemployed—showing that simple age demographics don’t always explain why more people may be dying.
A note on the data
Although The Current was provided with data going back to 1818, early documentation of BC’s births and deaths is not an accurate depiction of what was going on in the province as a whole.
Official vital statistics record-keeping did not begin until British Columbia became a Canadian province in 1872, and then explicitly excluded the documentation of Chinese and Indigenous births, deaths, and marriages. Even among white settler communities, there were challenges in getting accurate records. The very first annual report for Vital Statistics said the sheer size of the province, along with the “migratory habits” of local miners, made it a challenge to get accurate information.
Improvements did come along. By 1897, everyone living in British Columbia was included in Vital Statistics records—although two years later, Indigenous people would be removed again. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that Indigenous people could have their births, deaths, and marriages included in the province’s records. (In 1947, it was made mandatory for everyone in BC.)
There continue to be limitations on the data collected even in the modern day. BC Vital Statistics only counts births and deaths that took place in the province, and not any events that happened elsewhere. The exception to this is World War II; BC residents who died overseas in war were included in the death registrations for BC.
The information provided to The Current by BC Vital Statistics appears to be incomplete prior to WWII. The dataset indicates that less than 200 people died each year before 1940, while a 1968 Vital Statistics report includes a graph showing that deaths between the 1920s and 1930s were between 5,000 and 8,000 a year. For better accuracy, we have only used records shared by Vital Statistics from 1940 onwards.