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Behind the data of Canada’s Most Livable Cities

The hot topic news article titled “Canada’s Most Livable Cities,” a 2023 Edition, was published by The Globe and Mail on November 25th, 2023.  Everyone wants to know where their city lies on the ranking list but may not have read into the methodology behind it all.

This article collected and analyzed data for 439 cities, all with a population exceeding 10,000 people. These “cities” were defined using Statistics Canada’s (StatsCan) classification of Census Subdivisions (CSD). However, the data used for this ranking was sourced from Environics Analytics Group Ltd. (EA). EA, similar to StatsCan, uses quantitative data. The difference is while StatsCan uses surveys to collect data, EA relies on partnering with “different companies who share non-personal identification information” and data from “opt-in location-enable applications on mobile devices and ad exchange platforms” (EA, 2023).

Is this data from EA reliable and accurate? That is a hard question to answer. There is a bias in who is included here. Based on their data collection methods, people not connected to the technology grid are probably not accounted for.

The title “Canada’s Most Livable Cities” is misleading as well, with the top two ranked cities overall also lying in many top five unaffordable cities in Canada lists and top 20 lists around the world. In November 2023, Business Intelligence for B.C. released an article, “Canada’s five most expensive cities for rentals are all in B.C.,” with North Vancouver taking first place. Capital Daily released a similarly themed article titled “Here’s How Unaffordable Victoria Really Is,” which discusses how Victoria was ranked the 13th most unaffordable city in the world by Demographic International. The Globe and Mail recommends these top locations as “Canada’s Most Livable Cities,” but not everyone can afford to live there. Many commenters picked up and reflected on this, one saying:

“If you can’t afford to live somewhere in the first place, nothing else matters. I’m puzzled that if affordability is supposed to count, how can so many metro Vancouver, Toronto, and Victoria municipalities rank so high.”

This demonstrates the bias within this study. Yes, North Vancouver and Victoria are beautiful places to live, but only the upper class is actually able to afford to live there. The average single person working a minimum wage job could not afford to live in either North Vancouver or Victoria and sustain an adequate quality of life.

This partially has to do with the data being used. While quantitative data does supply great information, it often comes with blinders and can miss aspects of the bigger picture. On the quantitative data side, several aspects are missed within this analysis that I think are essential information to consider when moving to a new city. Some of these missed considerations are social equality, poverty rate, rate of homelessness, public transit, individual household income, housing availability, housing quality, affordability, air quality, access to nature, and predicted environmental impacts. Including this data would provide a fuller picture of these cities rather than just highlighting their strengths. The voices of the people who live, work, learn and play within these communities are missing and can provide insight into what it is like to actually be in these spaces, not just how appealing it is statistics wise. The use of research methods other than just quantitative would also help supply a more realistic overview and ranking of Canada’s cities.

Photo of buildings in Winnipeg, MB.

Mixed Methods Research

Research that uses both quantitative and qualitative data is often referred to as mixed methods research. The quantitative data provides the numbers to support the general point of research, while qualitative data provides more depth and details to understand their full implication. Qualitative data is vital to supporting an argument. For example, in the comments on “Canada’s Most Livable Cities,” many were shocked and in disbelief that Winnipeg was ranked #3. However, supportive comments from local Winnipeggers justified this response and got people thinking about our city from a new lens. One commenter who moved from Vancouver to Winnipeg said:

I’m from Vancouver and I moved out to Winnipeg for university, and I was shocked at how much my quality of life actually improved. Cost of living is a significant player in people’s lives. Not being stressed about rent, living costs, traffic, etc. and being able to spend more time on recreational activities, cafes, restaurants, etc. has been amazing. Winnipeg is also very bikeable and parts of the city (ie. Osborne Village, Exchange District) are walkable with a nice urban flair. It may not be my forever home, but Winnipeg has a lot of appeal and I believe it is a great place to raise a family.”

At Narratives Inc., we approach our work using mixed methods research of collecting both quantitative and qualitative data to ensure we view and understand something from every angle. Our Process encompasses community voices through engagement sessions, statistical, historical, and archival research. Using a trauma-informed response to meet people where they are is very important while conducting any type of research.

While Winnipeg is a great place to live for many reasons, it is always important to take a critical look at any article that relies solely on quantitative data. Data sets may often be skewed or accompanied by bias or be weighted in a way that does not give an adequate representation of the place itself. While being ranked as one of the most livable cities, lists can also do a disservice to a place, ranking it in a bad way (like high in crime), when in reality, this is a far more complex situation. Lists such as the Global and Mail “Canada’s Most Livable Cities” or Maclean’s “University Rankings” are, however, great marketing tools to capitalize on and promote some of the underdogs out there.

Isobel LeBlanc
Junior Planner at Narratives Inc.