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Increased Immigration Is Good for Canada — and the Reasons Aren’t Only Economic

Increased Immigration Is Good for Canada — and the Reasons Aren’t Only Economic

Andrew Coyne delivers insightful, provocative commentary on political and economic issues to Canadians across the country. The former national editor of Maclean’s, and currently a nationally syndicated columnist with Postmedia, Andrew’s topical and timely presentations are sure to ignite debate and discussion with every audience. Here, Andrew writes on why immigration could be a true boon for Canada:

More than a century after Sir Wilfrid Laurier grandly declared the twentieth century would be “the century of Canada,” Canadians may at last be ready to take him up on it.

Laurier’s boast, it is not often recalled, was not some random fancy. It was based on a very particular factor: immigration. “For the next 75 years, nay the next 100 years,” he told that same Toronto crowd in 1904, “Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.… There are men living in this audience … who before they die, if they live to old age, will see this country with at least 60 millions of people.”

This was not a particularly controversial statement at the time. Indeed, with the population then growing at better than three per cent per annum, it must have seemed obvious. Laurier’s contemporary, Stephen Leacock, saw his country on a path “that will make us 10 millions tomorrow, 20 millions in our children’s time and a 100 millions ere the century runs out.”

Well now a group of prominent Canadians known as the Century Initiative has proposed we reach for the same bold target — 100 million — only by the end of this century. One of the group’s founders is Dominic Barton, chairman of the federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which has just recommended that immigration be increased from roughly 300,000 per year to 450,000. So the issue is squarely in play.

At first glance, the number will seem startling: a near tripling of our current population of 36.4 million. On the other hand, 84 years is a very long time. Think of it this way: over the last decade, Canada’s population has grown at an average of 1.1 per cent per year. Were we merely to stay on our current growth trajectory, by 2100 the population would have risen to more than 90 million. So we are mostly talking about maintaining the status quo, higher immigration compensating for declining fertility.

Arguments raised to date against the proposal amount to objecting that 100 million is more than we have now. The reader is invited to believe that the present population of Canada is, by a remarkable coincidence, precisely the ideal number, such that any additions could only make things worse. And yet the same objections could have been used to argue against current population levels in 1945, when our population was a third of what it is today. “Are you ready for a Toronto of 20 million and a Vancouver of 10 million?” asks one particularly overheated correspondent. Gosh, I don’t know: you mean like New York and Paris?

On the other hand, arguments in favour of higher population also tend to be overstated. Yes, you get the benefits of economies of scale, but these could mostly be obtained through trade with other countries (although there remains a special intensity, economic research tells us, to trade within national borders — so there would be some gains). Likewise, while importing large numbers of people of working-age would go some way to offset population aging, it would only help a little: by 2030 the advisory council calculates it would mean we would have 35.7 retirees for every 100 workers, rather than 37.3.

For the most part, a country’s standard of living does not depend on how many people it has. Neither does its unemployment rate, nor its pollution levels, nor much else: policy, not population, determines these. There are perfectly habitable places with both smaller and larger populations than ours. Why, then, do I favour the Century Initiative?

One reason goes back to Laurier and Leacock, and the optimism and self-confidence of their era. I don’t think it’s coincidence that this was also a time of high immigration. Ambitious countries want to grow, but growth also makes countries ambitious. The constant injections of energy from new arrivals has always made this a different place than non-immigrant societies. We could use a little more of that.

Second, it would add to our clout in the world. We would be growing at a time when our peers are shrinking. At 100 million, current United Nations projections suggest we would be second only to the United States (it is forecast to grow to 450 million) among the G-7, vaulting past Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

That matters, in terms of our ability to project our interests and values on the world stage.

And it matters in terms of how we conduct our own affairs. We are not an especially small country by world standards — 38th largest in fact — and yet because we are so much smaller than our nearest neighbour, we tell ourselves we are. Often this has made us defensive and insecure, with unfortunate consequences for policy. Were we closer to a quarter of the U.S. population, rather than a ninth, that might ease.

A final point. Countries with larger populations enable people to live larger lives. They open possibilities to talented, ambitious people that are not possible elsewhere — and talented, ambitious people will always seek them out. To be a Canadian historically has been to watch many of our best and brightest leave in pursuit of their dreams. Nearly three million Canadians now live outside our borders, a third of them in the United States.

Imagine if they had stayed. Imagine if you did not have to go to the States to hit the big time. Imagine if you could hit the big time at home. Yeah, I think that’s a worthwhile Canadian initiative.

Andrew Coyne/National Post