CALGARY - Saddled with dwindling employment and shrinking energy prices, Alberta seems to be losing its status as the promised land for job-seekers from across Canada.
For more than a decade the province's resource-rich economy has drawn in hundreds of thousands of people from Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador and elsewhere.
But Statistics Canada's third-quarter population estimate for 2009 shows more people left Alberta for other provinces than moved in.
That's the first time that has happened since 1994.
Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist with the Bank of Montreal, says the province was pulling in almost 50,000 people a year from other provinces at the height of the energy boom .
"It is an amazing turnaround from as recently as three years ago when, on average, we were seeing about 12,000 or 13,000 net new migrants (per quarter) into Alberta from the rest of the country," he said Wednesday.
The culprit is probably a rising unemployment rate that's the result of tumbling energy prices, Porter said.
For example, Saskatchewan's unemployment rate was consistently higher than Alberta's several years ago but is now two percentage points lower.
"The relative attractiveness of Alberta has at least temporarily waned."
Todd Hirsch, a senior economist with ATB Financial, said in a daily economic note that the change is a logical result of a recession that could have left many people who came to the province from elsewhere suddenly unemployed.
"Because so much of Alberta's labour force arrived over the past few years from other provinces, it is logical that job-seekers may decide to return home if they find themselves out of work in Alberta."
Saskatoon real estate agent Terry Alm said he's definitely seeing more people from Alberta looking for homes than even a year ago. Many seem to be lured to the province by jobs in mining or construction, he said.
It's also not uncommon to see men coming out alone to work while their families stay behind, he added.
"What I'm seeing quite a bit of right now is the husband coming out of Calgary and his wife and family staying there."
Porter said it's unlikely the trend of people leaving Alberta will continue for too long because the energy sector has seen some recent gains that will probably lead to a revival of jobs.
Alberta's unemployment soared during the global recession, but it has shown recent signs of recovery. The province's employment rose by 13,000 in November, the biggest gain in more than a year.
Porter predicted it might not bounce back immediately, so it might be a couple of years before people start flowing back.
"(The energy sector) is definitely going through a heavy-duty adjustment now because of the decline in prices from the peak, but we believe over time it will continue to act as a magnet for investment and for people."
In the meantime, there's no need to worry about a suddenly shrinking Alberta - thanks to births and immigration from other parts of the world the province's population still grew more than the national average over the quarter, according to Statistics Canada.
It's still the third-fastest growing province, behind only British Columbia and Saskatchewan.