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Canada’s Population Riddle

Published on 21/07/2011

What should Canada’s population be? Are we the right size at 34.5 million? Or should we be larger or smaller? And if so, how much larger or smaller?

Population can rise or fall. The basic determinant is how many children are born, the so-called birth rate or fertility rate. For a society like Canada to stay at a steady state, women need to give birth to 2.1 babies on average. If that average is higher, the population grows; if it is smaller, it shrinks. Canada’s is just over 1.5, so our population is decreasing, based on fertility.

But other numbers influence population too: the number of immigrants who arrive, and the number of people who emigrate from Canada to someplace else; and the number of people who die. It matters what the age profile of the population is, whether there are more young people than old, whether there are sufficient numbers of people of working age to keep the economy going. Knowing the age profile of the population helps governments plan how many schools or hospitals are needed, businesses to plan what kinds of products will be in demand, and the community sector to plan what kinds of services will be needed. More daycare or elder care, more sportscars or family sedans, more kindergartens or geriatric facilities.

But Canada has no public population target that has come from a well considered process. We set immigration targets each year, the most generous per capita in the world, but to what end? Some people in the environment movement suggest that our population is too big because of the enormity of our carbon footprint. Some people in the commercial sector say we should be bigger to create bigger domestic markets for goods and services. But in the absence of a process of determining what size we want our population to be, we are just twiddling the dials, augmenting natural birth rate with a little more or less immigration.

Once, a century ago, we had a population policy. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier looked at the vast unoccupied prairie and feared that the Americans would settle and claim it. So he decided that the west must be populated and set in motion a plan to do it. He assigned Clifford Sifton in his cabinet to establish permanent settlement. He did so by attracting cold weather farmers, firstly from the United States. They were preferred because they could bring with them cattle and equipment. Then they targeted northern Europe, and it was said you couldn’t go down any country road without seeing a Canada recruiting poster on a fence post or barn door.

The result was that in about seven years prior to World War One they increased Canada’s population by over 50%! Deliberately, smartly, and in a way that fulfilled a national interest (safeguarding the prairies for Canada) and contributed to the economy (by creating the economic powerhouse that prairie grain farms became). To achieve the latter, they did everything they could to help the immigrants succeed: there were land grants and cheap land, loans for equipment and livestock, rail lines built to get crops to market, new grain storage facilities, and communities built with schools, hospitals and commerce. It was a fundamental building block of 20th century Canada.

If we had a visionary government today, the equivalent would be to take Canada’s population to 50 million by 2020, and to 75 million by 2030. It would have to be done by increasing immigration dramatically, by bringing in the best and the brightest from around the world, and helping them succeed. Increasing fertility rates is an unlikely strategy in a prosperous country, which typically have low birth rates.

An increased population would have benefits for Canada. A larger domestic market would make us less reliant on volatile export markets, where politics can stop our softwood lumber or potatoes at the border. It would give our manufacturers longer product runs, and let them produce a broader range of products. It would let Canadian entrepreneurs grow larger companies, avoiding the current ceiling where they have grown to Canadian scale and they sell to a foreign buyer rather than expand internationally. It would allow more Canadian cities to grow to scale, creating advantages in finance, infrastructure, and social development. At the same time, it would allow Toronto, and perhaps one or two other cities, to continue to climb the ranks of important global cities. Much of the wellbeing of nations now depends on the ability of their great city regions to compete for talent and innovation with other city regions, and Canada needs to up its game.

If dramatic growth became Canada’s population policy, much would have to change. As a country we would have to emulate Laurier and Sifton, and do everything we could to make immigrants succeed as quickly as possible. Nobody wins if we don’t. Employers would have to become good at hiring from unaccustomed sources, particularly given that they would benefit so much from growing markets. Governments would have to increase and improve hard infrastructure like transit systems, roads, bridges and sewers, and soft infrastructure like schools and hospitals. They would have to change their mindset to think of millions of new transit users like a business would, new customers and new revenue. Universities, colleges and hospitals would have to develop more and better bridging programs to help newcomers succeed, not leave them to figure out their way through the system. Cities would have to plan how to attract and absorb more residents, not in distant isolated suburbs but in accessible communities with all the amenities of Canadian life. In many cases we have excellent platforms to build on for more people, and in many others we need to do more and do better.

We would have to pay attention to environmental issues by dramatically reducing the average carbon footprint of Canadians. We would have to continue to rely on our courts and justice system to protect and renew our societal values, to keep testing community standards many times each day across the country.

There is a population clock on the Statistics Canada website that will tell you what our current population projection is. It keeps getting bigger as you watch it. But there is no suggestion of where it should be going, how long it should take to get there, and why that is a good idea. That would require Canada to have a population policy.

Summary

A larger population would be beneficial for Canada, but we have no population target or policy to get us there.

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