Canada is far from a full house

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - Doug Saun­ders is the Globe and Mail’s in­ter­na­tional-af­fairs colum­nist.

The coun­try is vastly un­der­pop­u­lated, pos­ing a very real threat, Doug Saun­ders writes

In his new book, Max­i­mum Canada, Doug Saun­ders chron­i­cles the ways in which a ‘pop­u­la­tion deficit’ is ham­per­ing op­por­tu­nity and pos­ing a gen­uine threat to so­cial pro­grams, liv­able cities and a cleaner en­vi­ron­ment. As am­bi­tious as it sounds, a goal of 100 mil­lion Cana­di­ans may be worth aim­ing for, he writes, but we must start plan­ning now to get it right

If you’re stuck in traf­fic on Van­cou­ver’s Lions Gate Bridge, squeezed shoul­der-to-shoul­der on the King street­car in Toronto, or try­ing to find a free seat on a ter­rasse on Mon­treal’s Plateau any sum­mer evening, you might find it hard to be­lieve that Canada has a short­age of peo­ple.

Our pop­u­la­tion problem be­comes tan­gi­ble only when you set out to do cer­tain things that re­quire an au­di­ence, a mar­ket, or the sup­port of an in­sti­tu­tion or medium that only a pop­u­lous coun­try can pro­vide. Then you dis­cover that there’s just not enough Canada.

If you’re an en­tre­pre­neur seek­ing ven­ture cap­i­tal, an ac­tivist fight­ing for bet­ter pub­lic ser­vices, or a pro­fes­sional search­ing for the best cre­den­tials, you have prob­a­bly, at some point, run up against the lim­its of Canada’s pop­u­la­tion, cur­rently sit­ting at about 35 mil­lion. Same if you’re an artist or writer look­ing for an au­di­ence big enough to pro­vide you with a liv­ing, a band-coun­cil leader hop­ing to make your com­mu­nity’s next gen­er­a­tion in­de­pen­dent and well-ed­u­cated, an on­line en­tre­pre­neur seek­ing Cana­dian clicks, a mayor hop­ing to fill your city with de­cent pub­lic tran­sit, or an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist seek­ing a big shift to green tech­nol­ogy in en­ergy and trans­porta­tion.

For many in­di­vid­ual Cana­di­ans, the first vis­i­ble re­al­ity of un­der­pop­u­la­tion is the dis­cov­ery that you need to leave the coun­try to suc­ceed in your ca­reer, your ed­u­ca­tion or your craft. At least three mil­lion Cana­di­ans live abroad – al­most one in 10 of us. This shouldn’t be seen strictly as a net loss; even in a fully equipped coun­try, it’s ad­mirable to use the wider world to ex­pand your­self. The problem, in Canada, is that there’s of­ten no other way: The au­di­ences, mar­kets, clus­ters of ex­per­tise are of­ten lo­cated some­where else, some­where with more peo­ple.

A decade and a half ago, I started look­ing into the core ques­tions of Cana­dian pop­u­la­tion. How did we end up with so few peo­ple? How does our low pop­u­la­tion den­sity af­fect our liveli­hood? And what is Canada’s ideal sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion level? The re­sults of my re­search are pub­lished in my new book, Max­i­mum Canada.

It con­cludes that we are still strug­gling with a pop­u­la­tion deficit dat­ing from more than a cen­tury of failed trade, im­mi­gra­tion, pop­u­la­tion and eco­nomic poli­cies – be­gin­ning in the pre-Con­fed­er­a­tion decades – that drove peo­ple away from Canada.

In most of the decades from 1850 to 1950, a time when tens of mil­lions of am­bi­tious peo­ple flooded out of Europe and Asia for the New World, Canada ex­pe­ri­enced a net mi­gra­tory loss. By the end of the Sec­ond World War, Canada had at­tracted 6.7 mil­lion im­mi­grants, but had lost 6.3 mil­lion Cana­di­ans – gen­er­ally our more ed­u­cated and suc­cess­ful cit­i­zens – who em­i­grated to other coun­tries, mainly the United States.

The “min­i­miz­ing” pol­i­tics of Canada’s first cen­tury of Con­fed­er­a­tion – a mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing set of poli­cies that re­stricted North Amer­i­can trade, main­tained im­pe­rial re­source-econ­omy ties, lim­ited much im­mi­gra­tion be­yond the Bri­tish and the ru­ral, val­ued farm­ing over com­merce, treated Indige­nous peo­ples as prob­lems rather than part­ners, and dis­cour­aged en­trepreneur­ship – worked to keep the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion growth ex­tremely lim­ited. This was true even dur­ing the of­fi­cial im­mi­gra­tion drives of the 1870s and 1930s, both of which failed.

We are still strug­gling with the legacy of that past. It has left us with cities that sprawl rather than con­cen­trate, with Indige­nous, fran­co­phone and mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tions still re­cov­er­ing from more than a cen­tury of sub­ju­ga­tion, with poor rates of business cre­ation, with ma­jor com­pa­nies that de­pend on sub­si­dies rather than mar­kets – and with a level and den­sity of pop­u­la­tion in­ad­e­quate to cre­ate the mar­kets and in­sti­tu­tions this cen­tury will re­quire.

Only to­day, af­ter an­other half-cen­tury spent wrestling with those con­se­quences, does Canada have a na­tional, cross-par­ti­san con­sen­sus around a broadly ex­pan­sion­ist vi­sion for the fu­ture. We have reached the point where we can talk hon­estly about our need for more Cana­di­ans.

The chal­lenge now is how to talk about ad­dress­ing that need – be­cause it is not sim­ply a mat­ter of adding more peo­ple.

A ques­tion of ca­pac­ity

On the most ba­sic level, pop­u­la­tion doesn’t mat­ter. Hav­ing more peo­ple does not by it­self make a coun­try more suc­cess­ful.

Rather, the is­sue is one of ca­pac­ity. Do we have the right peo­ple, in the right num­bers, con­cen­trated closely enough to­gether in the right places, to do the things to­gether that we want and need to do? Given our huge ge­o­graphic ex­panse, our widely dis­persed com­mu­ni­ties and our wa­ver­ing de­pen­dence on larger, for­eign mar­kets, do we have a suf­fi­ciently high den­sity of tax­pay­ers, con­sumers, au­di­ences, in­ven­tors, spe­cial­ists, in­vestors, el­ders and heal­ers, en­trepreneurs, care­givers, schol­ars, ac­tivists and lead­ers to cre­ate the things we need to sus­tain our stan­dard of liv­ing through a po­ten­tially dif­fi­cult fu­ture?

There are sev­eral cru­cial ways to look at our pop­u­la­tion. We can look at it as a mar­ket – that is, as peo­ple who will con­sume the goods and ser­vices cre­ated by other peo­ple, al­low­ing their en­ter­prises to suc­ceed. As tax­pay­ers – peo­ple of work­ing age who can pro­vide a fis­cal base that will sup­port pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and in­fra­struc­ture, in great enough num­bers to keep tax rates rea­son­able. As a labour force – peo­ple whose skills and strengths can be put to work, in suf­fi­cient num­bers to make en­ter­prises thrive. As an au­di­ence – peo­ple who con­sume and sup­port the in­for­ma­tion ser­vices, the cul­tural and me­dia in­sti­tu­tions and the on­line re­sources of the coun­try. As clus­ters of ex­per­tise – groups of skilled and ed­u­cated peo­ple who work closely to­gether, shar­ing knowl­edge, op­por­tu­ni­ties and fund­ing, in or­der to cre­ate new prod­ucts, ser­vices and sci­en­tific ad­vances. Fi­nally, as cities – pools of peo­ple liv­ing closely to­gether and shar­ing re­sources.

At the mo­ment, we have enough peo­ple to make things func­tion rea­son­ably well in many of these areas. But if we ex­am­ine each of these pop­u­la­tion group­ings and their am­bi­tions, we start to see the ca­pac­ity that is miss­ing, the po­ten­tial that is un­tapped or un­avail­able, and the miss­ing hu­man re­sources that leave us un­pre­pared for a more chal­leng­ing


Fast-shift­ing ra­tios

When schol­ars and gov­ern­ments talk about pop­u­la­tion short­falls these days, they are most of­ten look­ing at the de­mo­graphic and fis­cal chal­lenges of a pop­u­la­tion that’s grow­ing slowly and ag­ing quickly.

This loom­ing de­mo­graphic crunch is not the most grave or in­sol­u­ble problem of un­der­pop­u­la­tion, and it is largely a medium-term problem, set to un­fold over the next 40 or 50 years. But it hap­pens to be one that ter­ri­fies gov­ern­ments, econ­o­mists and in­vestors, hav­ing as it does the po­ten­tial to mea­sur­ably lower our pro­duc­tiv­ity and qual­ity of life.

Be­cause our lack­lus­tre fam­ily poli­cies do lit­tle to en­cour­age larger fam­ily sizes, Canada’s pop­u­la­tion growth cur­rently de­pends en­tirely on im­mi­gra­tion. But our im­mi­gra­tion num­bers are mod­est – we’d need to take in two mil­lion peo­ple a year to ap­proach the pop­u­la­tion lev­els of the early 20th cen­tury. As a con­se­quence, the num­ber of baby boomers turn­ing 65 each year out­num­bers the ba­bies and chil­dren join­ing Canada’s pop­u­la­tion through child­birth and im­mi­gra­tion. For the first time in our his­tory, there are now more Cana­di­ans over 65 than there are Cana­di­ans 14 and younger.

At the mo­ment, roughly 16 per cent of Cana­di­ans are 65 and older. By 2035, at cur­rent pop­u­la­tion-growth rates, that pro­por­tion will have risen by more than half, to 25 per cent.

In the mean­time, by 2026, more than 2.4 mil­lion Cana­di­ans over 65 will re­quire con­tin­u­ing­care sup­port (long-term care, med­i­cal sup­port, in-home care and so on). That’s a 71-per-cent in­crease from 2011. By 2046, there will 3.3 mil­lion such Cana­di­ans.

Those num­bers af­fect the de­pen­dency ra­tio: the num­ber of work­ing-age peo­ple (who con­trib­ute the lion’s share of taxes) com­pared to the num­ber of re­tire­ment-age peo­ple (who tend to con­sume con­sid­er­ably more tax-sup­ported ser­vices). In Canada, this ra­tio is shift­ing quickly. At the mo­ment, there are four work­ing-age Cana­di­ans to sup­port each of those who have made it to re­tire­ment age. By 2031, that ra­tio will be halved: For a cou­ple of decades, as the baby boom en­ters its fi­nal years, we will have only about two tax­pay­ers to sup­port each se­nior. This will be ex­pen­sive. Ac­cord­ing to the Con­fer­ence Board of Canada, spend­ing on con­tin­u­ing care for se­niors will need to in­crease from $29-bil­lion in 2011 to an ex­tra­or­di­nary $184bil­lion – in to­day’s dol­lars – in 2046. Two-thirds of that bill is paid for by gov­ern­ments.

An older pop­u­la­tion is also more prone to ex­pen­sive health trou­bles. As a re­sult, health-care spend­ing by prov­inces, cur­rently com­ing in at $150-bil­lion a year, will in­crease from 37 per cent of govern­ment rev­enue to­day to 44 per cent by 2042. Like­wise, the share of fed­eral tax earn­ings that will have to be spent on Old Age Se­cu­rity – Canada’s largest govern­ment cost – will have to rise by 20 per cent by the 2030s.

Most of this ad­just­ment will need to come from large-scale re­duc­tions to other govern­ment de­part­ments and pro­grams, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion, tran­sit in­fra­struc­ture, the so­cial safety net and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion – that is, al­most every area con­sid­ered cen­tral to gen­er­at­ing fu­ture growth and sus­tain­abil­ity. The po­ten­tial re­sult: a vi­cious cy­cle of eco­nomic, de­mo­graphic and eco­log­i­cal de­cline.

That is not the only pos­si­ble fu­ture. It could be a lot tougher. Ac­cord­ing to Con­fer­ence Board fore­casts, if im­mi­gra­tion were re­stricted to half its cur­rent level in com­ing decades, the ef­fect on pop­u­la­tion would cause eco­nomic growth to fall to an av­er­age of 0.6 per cent an­nu­ally, from the cur­rently pro­jected 1.5 per cent.

By con­trast, if Canada were to pur­sue a growth strat­egy aimed at tripling its pop­u­la­tion by 2100 through mod­est im­mi­gra­tion and fam­ily-pol­icy in­cen­tives, pro­jected eco­nomic growth would rise to 2.6 per cent an­nu­ally. And, as a fur­ther con­se­quence of this larger, younger pop­u­la­tion, both govern­ment ex­pen­di­tures and tax bur­dens would drop dra­mat­i­cally dur­ing the crunch years of the 2030s and 2040s.

More im­por­tantly, that added pop­u­la­tion would pro­vide last­ing ben­e­fits to our eco­nomic, eco­log­i­cal and cul­tural life.

Mar­kets and crit­i­cal mass

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. Or it runs aground on Canada’s com­par­a­tively sparse dis­tri­bu­tion of in­vestors and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, top tech­ni­cal minds and skilled spe­cial­ists.

Our ex­ist­ing pop­u­la­tion is well equipped for the coun­try to be­come a cre­ative-econ­omy leader: Cana­di­ans are now among the most ed­u­cated peo­ple in the world. Two-thirds of us have post­sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tions. And Canada is in the top hand­ful of na­tions in mea­sures of patents, re­search pa­pers and No­bel Prizes per capita.

But any­one in business will tell you that there are real lim­its to what can be ac­com­plished, given Canada’s low-den­sity pop­u­la­tion – a small mar­ket, spread across five time zones, two of­fi­cial lan­guages and 13 po­lit­i­cal ju­ris­dic­tions. And those lim­its will be­come only more ev­i­dent if the trade-pro­tec­tion­ist threats of Don­ald Trump and his fel­low dem­a­gogues in other coun­tries suc­ceed in curb­ing world trade.

Over the past 20 years a sub­stan­tial vol­ume of re­search has been con­ducted by econ­o­mists into the fac­tors that al­low com­pa­nies to achieve “take­off” into the global econ­omy. And there is a strong con­sen­sus that mar­ket size is crit­i­cal – not just the con­sumer mar­ket, but the mar­kets in skills, em­ploy­ees, ser­vices, patents and ex­per­tise. Har­vard econ­o­mist Al­berto Alesina, in an oft-cited study, found that a coun­try’s phys­i­cal size mat­ters lit­tle, but that the size of its do­mes­tic mar­kets – and their con­cen­tra­tion within a par­tic­u­lar ge­o­graphic space – mat­ters a lot.

Canada’s most suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies of the re­cent past, from the for­merly dom­i­nant smart­phone-maker Black­Berry to the cur­rently boom­ing con­ve­nience­s­tore gi­ant Couche-Tard, have of­ten taken a “straight-to-global” or “mini-multi­na­tional” ap­proach by aim­ing for far larger world­wide con­sumer mar­kets from the be­gin­ning. But that has be­come a more dif­fi­cult path to fol­low dur­ing the past decade. Aside from the loom­ing threat of pro­tec­tion­ism un­der Mr. Trump, there are two new bar­ri­ers to be­com­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally com­pet­i­tive.

First, many of the world’s largest gov­ern­ments are giv­ing ex­clu­sive ac­cess to their own coun­tries’ busi­nesses when it comes to pub­lic-sec­tor pur­chas­ing con­tracts. In 2009, at the peak of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the United States passed the sprawl­ing Amer­i­can Re­cov­ery and Rein­vest­ment Act, whose Buy Amer­i­can pro­vi­sion gives U.S. firms a huge com­pet­i­tive edge by guar­an­tee­ing them a gi­gan­tic and wealthy do­mes­tic client. Canada is the­o­ret­i­cally ex­empt, but the act gives Amer­i­can firms a clear do­mes­tic-mar­ket ad­van­tage. The U.S. is not an out­lier here: Since 2008, In­dia, China and other gi­ant economies (the EU is a lone ex­cep­tion) have in­tro­duced sim­i­lar schemes.

In a sec­ond ma­jor change, since 2008 larger economies have be­gun pour­ing huge sums of pub­lic money into the R&D bud­gets of their favoured do­mes­tic com­pa­nies and sec­tors – a form of sub­sidy that is not re­stricted by the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

This is where Canada gets tripped up by its low pop­u­la­tion. Un­like com­pa­nies head­quar­tered in larger economies, Canada’s in­ter­na­tional busi­nesses can’t fall back on the coun­try’s do­mes­tic mar­ket – it’s just not big enough. And while we do sub­si­dize favoured in­dus­tries, our small fis­cal base pre­vents us from dump­ing R&D fund­ing into en­tire sec­tors on the same scale as does China or the U.S.

“We’re de­pen­dent on the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket,” says Dan Her­man, the founder of the Cen­tre for Dig­i­tal En­trepreneur­ship and Eco­nomic Per­for­mance, based in Water­loo, Ont. “But the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket is in­creas­ingly look­ing in­ward. … China and In­dia and the rest of Asia, they’ve be­come in­ward-look­ing. … That’s when you get back to the 34 mil­lion and you ask, ‘What can you sell to that mar­ket and ac­tu­ally build big com­pa­nies?’ Not much. ‘What can you do for an in­ter­na­tional com­pany in terms of govern­ment con­tracts?’ Not much.”

Green­ing through growth

There is also the ef­fect of un­der­pop­u­la­tion on our eco­log­i­cal prospects, and it plays out in two im­por­tant ways.

First, it forces us to use in­ef­fi­cient and highly pol­lut­ing forms of trans­porta­tion, heat­ing and en­ergy, be­cause our larger ur­ban areas are too thinly pop­u­lated to sup­port more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient tech­nol­ogy. And it de­nies us the crit­i­cal mass of peo­ple, and their tax dol­lars, that we need to build in­fra­struc­ture for green-en­ergy gen­er­a­tion and low-en­ergy na­tional trans­porta­tion net­works, and to pro­tect us against the ef­fects of cli­mate change.

Canada’s largest source of green­house-gas emis­sions dur­ing most years, ac­count­ing for a quar­ter of the car­bon we emit, is trans­porta­tion. Pri­vate pas­sen­ger ve­hi­cles gen­er­ate the largest share of those by far, and most of their out­put is in ur­ban areas. The heat­ing of build­ings – es­pe­cially sin­gle-fam­ily homes in cities and sub­urbs – ac­counts for an­other 12 per cent; and the use of in­ef­fi­cient fos­sil-fuel elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tion, 11 per cent.

In other words, half of Canada’s at­mo­spheric dam­age is caused by fac­tors di­rectly rooted in our low pop­u­la­tion den­sity. We don’t have the masses of peo­ple needed to re­place in­ter­nal-com­bus­tion trans­porta­tion with cut­ting-edge pub­lic tran­sit and high-speed rail; we rely too much on sprawl­ing sin­gle-fam­ily dwellings that lack heat­ing ef­fi­ciency; and we still don’t have the pop­u­la­tion size to pay for rapid re­place­ment of fos­sil-fuel-based power gen­er­a­tion with non-fos­sil en­ergy sources (al­though that change is tak­ing place, slowly).

Metro Van­cou­ver, the Greater Toronto Area and Greater Mon­treal have reached par­tic­u­larly frus­trat­ing points in their devel­op­ment. They are now large and pop­u­lated enough that they face a se­vere need for cru­cial in­fra­struc­ture, such as more high­speed pub­lic tran­sit and fast re­gional rail lines. But out­side their down­town cores, they have not at­tained the pop­u­la­tion den­sity that can pro­vide the rid­er­ship lev­els to sup­port high-ef­fi­ciency rapid-tran­sit de­vel­op­ments. And they are not pop­u­lous enough yet to have the rev­enues or voter clout to make such de­vel­op­ments hap­pen. They find them­selves ur­gently need­ing the trans­porta­tion net­works of cities with two or three times their pop­u­la­tion. The re­sult for their res­i­dents is grid­lock, iso­la­tion and re­duced mo­bil­ity.

Re­search by Luis Bet­ten­court, a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist and pro­fes­sor of com­plex sys­tems at the Santa Fe In­sti­tute, has found a con­sis­tent world-wide pat­tern: As cities scale up in size, they gen­er­ate more pros­per­ity – and use much less en­ergy – per per­son: “A city of eight mil­lion typ­i­cally needs 15 per cent less of the same in­fra­struc­ture than do two cities of four mil­lion each,” he says.

The eco­log­i­cal ben­e­fits of higher pop­u­la­tion den­sity are par­tic­u­larly strong. As Dr. Bet­ten­court’s re­search has found, the largest cities in North Amer­ica have the low­est per-capita car­bon-diox­ide emis­sions. That gain is not a re­sult of green poli­cies, he finds, but a sim­ple byprod­uct of “en­ergy-ef­fi­cient pub­lic trans­porta­tion and sim­ple walk­ing in­stead of driv­ing” – a den­sity-driven change to forms of trans­porta­tion that are 10 times more en­ergy-ef­fi­cient.

In ad­di­tion to greater den­sity, an in­crease in the to­tal num­ber of Cana­di­ans – and thus, Cana­dian tax­pay­ers – will also make it eas­ier to ad­dress eco­log­i­cal is­sues. In the com­ing decades, gov­ern­ments will need to build coastal de­fences against ris­ing sea lev­els, re­place ur­ban in­fra­struc­ture so that it will be more re­sis­tant to volatile weather pat­terns, par­tic­i­pate in a global drive to build car­bon-re­moval tech­nol­ogy, take mea­sures to make our ex­trac­tive in­dus­tries more car­bon-neu­tral, and shift to non­pol­lut­ing en­ergy sources.

The cost of these shifts, for both the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors, will be huge. A 2011 re­search re­port by the Na­tional Round Ta­ble on the En­vi­ron­ment and the Econ­omy es­ti­mated that cli­mate de­fences alone, even at a mod­est level, will cost Cana­dian gov­ern­ments some­where be-

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.

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.

The big­ger pic­ture

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.

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