The bigger picture
tween $21-billion and $43-billion a year by the 2050s (with a onein-20 chance that those costs could rise as high as $91-billion a year). Economies of scale are crucial here: Only the biggest cities will be able to afford, and organize, climate defences and energy reduction. And only a sustainably large population will provide us with the fiscal base and economic scale needed to shift to a zero-carbon economy in the next four decades. The risks of 100 million What does a sustainable population look like? It is enough people, in the right concentrations, to overcome the barriers of underpopulation in the long term. It is enough clusters of people, across multiple generations, with the right skills and capacities to support the public institutions, the cultural and media and educational institutions and the forms of expression and markets that befit a leading nation.
It is the ability to shift further from resource extraction to a more sustainable, value-added economy, to become more selfsupporting should major trading partners become unreliable.
A sustainable population does not mean spreading people across the land, as we did in our first century. It means creating strong and tight-knit urban communities that flourish within existing greenbelts, where towns participate in clusters of knowledge and innovation, where thriving centres of higher learning, technology and specialization take shape, and where smart growth provides better stewardship and protection of the environment, allowing, even, for an expansion of wild and agricultural lands.
It has become popular recently, in government and academic circles, to speak of a population target of 100 million by 2100. And on a basic level, such a population would not be difficult to obtain: If we wanted to do it through immigration alone, a modest increase in the immigration rate, from the current 0.8 per cent to 1.2 per cent, to a total of about 408,000 people a year (that’s below the rate of countries such as Norway and Switzerland) would get us there. And those increases could be considerably smaller if we made use of better family policy – childcare, flexible-work policies and family incentives – to narrow Canada’s fertility gap.
But there seems to be an assumption, among some of today’s population-growth advocates, that the tripling of Canada’s current population will be as easy as the last tripling – which took place between the Second World War and approximately 2015, when Canada grew from 12 million to 35 million people. That tripling vastly boosted Canada’s economy, raised its standard of living, and, because foreign-born Canadians commit far fewer criminal offences, helped reduce crime rates to historic lows.
To a large extent that was all a matter of luck: We happened to have the right sort of cities with the right housing at the right prices and with the right jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in the right places. Newcomers arrived, and new generations were born into, situations that were sometimes challenging but in many ways almost ideal.
The next seven decades of Canadian population growth are not going to be as easy or as inexpensive.
Indeed, it is worth taking a serious look at the costs, risks and hazards involved in another tripling. And if our answers aren’t good enough – if we don’t have the commitment to make the major investments and reforms that a larger population entails – we should be willing to embrace the case against growth. Without preparation and planning, the benefits of a more sustainable population could turn into the political and social risk of an unsupported, segregated, unequal and unproductive one. Wanted: jobs that work During the past century, the steady full-time industrial job and the small-but-thriving local business were crucial instruments of upward mobility and family success for millions of new Canadians. Until about 1990, immigrant incomes converged with average Canadian incomes within about 15 years of arrival. That’s no longer the case. Today, immigrants who have been in Canada for 15 years, despite far higher skill and education levels than their predecessors, are about twice as likely as Canadians in general to earn after-tax incomes below $30,000 a year, and almost 1.5 times as likely to live in poverty. Genuine economic integration does not happen until the second generation comes of age.
That is in part because of a changing labour market: Between 1997 and 2012, the number of temporary jobs in Canada increased by 57 per cent, compared to an increase of only 28 per cent for all forms of employment. In 2016, Canada’s economy saw a net employment increase of 153,300 new part-time positions – but only 60,400 full-time jobs. And a number of studies have pointed to increasing job insecurity and precariousness in the workplace.
Today, “work” means something very different for many new Canadians – and for an increasing number of young Canadians as well.
If Canada’s population growth, fuelled in good part by immigration, is built upon insecure, precarious or informal forms of employment – lives propped up by thin webs of “sharing economy” contracts, haphazardly scheduled part-time shifts, and positions lacking pensions, benefits or salaries capable of putting one’s children through university – then the project might not be worth it. We need to build a system of pensions, benefits, guaranteed incomes, unemployment insurance and labour contracts to make this new, less rigid – but also less secure – workplace a launchpad for creativity and richer lives rather than a cause of anxiety and insecurity. Owning a piece of Canada More than any other factor, what has made immigrants integrate so quickly and successfully in Canada has been their high propensity – and ability – to buy the houses and condominium apartments they live in, often soon after landing.
But the traditional new-Canadian practice of buying a home in a lower-cost urban immigrant district, then using its rise in value to finance social and economic mobility, has become more difficult. Since 2000, house prices have risen dramatically in Canadian cities – especially in and around Vancouver and Toronto, the metropolitan areas where more than half of Canada’s immigrants settle.
Home ownership remains important enough that more than half of immigrants continue to buy homes within four years of arrival, despite their comparatively lower incomes, by making greater sacrifices and borrowing much more heavily than did earlier generations. But the places they are able to rent, and buy, have changed: The great majority of immigrant settlement now takes place in low-density outskirts that are poorly served by public transit. Some of these places, without better resources and connections, are at risk of isolation, economic and ethnic segregation.
If we want to raise the populations of our major cities, we will need to ensure that the right sort of neighbourhoods, with the right sort of density, transit and proximity, take shape. We need to look at filling in sprawling single-family neighbourhoods with apartment housing; intensifying existing inner-city neighbourhoods to turn them into walkable, tight-knit places, keeping growth within their green-belt boundaries; and investing in high-speed transportation links to turn the suburbs into new and thriving hubs. Time to recognize talent We’re no longer importing farmers, fishers, lumberjacks and assembly-line workers. The people who come to Canada tend to be, on average, more talented and knowledgeable than the people who were born here: Immigrants, despite starting out poor, are twice as likely as the Canadianborn to have a university degree.
But that talent is often wasted. A 2012 study by the Library of Parliament found that a mere 24 per cent of immigrants (including long-term immigrants) educated in a regulated profession were working in the field for which they had been trained, compared to 62 per cent of similarly educated Canadians.
That’s partly because Canada has significant labour shortages in unskilled and semi-skilled fields, which require less linguistic fluency than do the professions. But it’s also because many foreign professional credentials, licences, advanced degrees – not to mention trade experience – are not recognized by our professional colleges, licensing boards, government authorities, unions and trade organizations. There have been small steps to reform the credential-upgrading and recognition system, but Canada’s approximately 500 credentialling bodies remain woefully behind their international counterparts in recognizing foreign skills.
Canada can’t afford to waste entire generations of talent as it expands its population. Aside from driving up the costs of social services (thus making immigration more expensive), the wasted-generation effect is depriving Canada of the expertise and knowledge it needs right now. The Conference Board forecasts that by 2020 Canada will have a skilled-labour shortage of close to a million people.
There is no point tripling the population if, in the process, we greatly increase the proportion of Canadians in poverty, dependent on social assistance, or forced to give up their life’s ambition. We need to develop a much more coordinated immigration and settlement system aimed at connecting people and their skills to the considerable – and evolving – needs of Canada’s economy. Making new Canadians, at home Solving Canada’s underpopulation problem is not simply, or even mainly, a matter of bringing in more immigrants. A large part of it can be addressed by bringing new citizens into the world the more familiar way. Canadians currently don’t have as many children as they’d like. Statisticians call this the “fertility gap” – something they calculate by asking couples in their 20s how many children they’d like to have, then asking couples in their 40s how many children they were able to have.
In Canada, an Ipsos Reid study found that, on average, couples say they’d ideally have 2.4 children – a number well above the 2.1 children per family needed to sustain a non-shrinking population. In fact, the average Canadian couple has 1.6 children – which, subtracted from the 2.4 they’d wanted to have, leaves a real-life gap of 0.8 children per family. If that gap were magically filled and existing families managed to attain the wished-for average of 2.4 children, there would be 7.5 million more Canadians.
Of course, it’s not that easy: When asked why they’d had fewer children than they wanted, 72 per cent of couples identified the very real barrier of “finances.”
We do know, from Canadian experience, that readily available and affordable child-care programs measurably increase the fertility rate, and thus the population. In 1997, Quebec introduced a low-cost universal childcare program that offered spaces for preschoolers at five dollars a day (the price was later raised to seven). By 2011, the program was serving almost half the province’s preschoolers, and allowing 70,000 additional women to enter or return to the work force.
And it narrowed the fertility gap. In the 1990s, Quebec’s fertility rate had plummeted to a Canadian low of 1.35 children per family; the new scheme helped push the rate above the Canadian average – to 1.7 children per family by 2010. (It has slid slightly to match the Canadian average of 1.6 – still a considerable population boost.) And the program paid for itself: The extra incometax revenues from women entering the labour force exceeded the total cost of the program. The challenges of family policy, like most of the obstacles examined here, are already being experienced by Canadians, and will be growing problems, regardless of what happens to the population. The changes in the structure of the work force, in the cost and accessibility of housing, in the geographic isolation of major cities; the obstacles to getting credentials recognized, and of lost educational opportunities – all these barriers to equality and social mobility need to be confronted by Canadians and their governments, whether we triple our population or not.
It is therefore worth asking: If the time has come for Canada to train its sights on institutional reform, infrastructure expansion and policy reassessment, why shouldn’t we also make plans to build a population commensurate with those ambitions and resources? The changes we need to undertake in order to maintain and empower a Canada of 35 million will be far easier to bring about, and yield far greater benefits, if they are applied to a population that is gradually growing to a larger and more self-sufficient scale by the end of the century.
With that population – and by instituting the reforms needed to create it – Canada promises to become a place with the tools and resources to do many things better, more fairly, more cleanly and more co-operatively: a more comfortable, and more intensely Canadian version of the Canada we know.
If you’re working in a business that operates at a national or international level, you probably already know this: Canada’s desire to build a more diversified, innovation-based economy often hits the brick wall of a limited domestic market.