What would a Canada of 100 million feel like? Much like today’s Canada, but more comfortable, better-served and better defended against ecological and human threats.
If just the narrow strip of land upon which most Canadians live were to develop the population density of the Netherlands or England, then the overall population would be more than 400 million. A quarter of that density would give Canada’s southern strip the population density of Spain or Romania, two big countries noted for their huge, unspoiled tracts of nature. The remaining 90 per cent of Canada would remain largely untouched – modern immigration takes place in already urbanized areas.
It would turn our major cities into places of intense and world-leading culture – and it would greatly improve their quality of life, as they’d finally have a critical mass of ratepayers large enough to support top-quality public transit, parks, museums, universities and property developments. It would put an end to the low population density that plagues large sections of Toronto and Calgary. It would turn the less-large cities, including Edmonton, Regina and Ottawa, into truly important centres.
Canada’s environment would probably be far better protected: Densely populated places like California and France tend to do better at conservation than empty zones like the Asian steppe, which produced such ecological catastrophes as the Aral Sea disaster unobserved. The threats of global warming – notably ocean-level rises – will require large-scale infrastructure projects that must rely on a large tax base. And it’s no coincidence that the most progressive climate-change policies are found in the countries with the most dense populations.
The price of underpopulation
Canadians cannot build the institutions of nationhood and the tools of global participation using the skills, markets and tax revenues of somewhere between 21 and 24 million English speakers and eight million francophones scattered more or less sparsely over a area of land encompassing five time zones, several geographic and cultural regions, a dozen political jurisdictions and the second largest land mass on Earth. Underpopulation has been part of the dialogue in Quebec for decades, but English-speaking Canadians too often fail to recognize the banana peel that keeps tripping up their nation’s ambitions.
The challenge is not simply economic. The greatest price of underpopulation is loneliness: We are often unable to talk intelligently to each other, not to mention the world, because we just don’t have enough people to support the institutions of dialogue and culture – whether they’re universities, magazines, movie industries, think tanks or publishing houses. Unlike the tightly packed countries of Europe, Canada has multiple, dispersed audiences with different regional cultures – and therefore needs a larger base population, especially in its cities.
Anyone who has tried to do culture, scholarship, public thought, entertainment or political thinking on the national level will recognize the brick wall of underpopulation. There isn’t a large enough audience, or market, to support such institutions at a minimal level of quality or scope. That’s why all of Canada’s major publishing houses are branches of foreign firms. It’s the reason why our TV and movies are either foreign- or government-funded and regulated. It’s the reason why such important institutions as McClelland and Stewart and Saturday Night magazine failed, even after repeated government bailouts and tax protection. Just not enough audience. It’s the reason why our only English-language national newsmagazine, Maclean’s, manages to survive (and then just barely) only through as much as $3-million a year in federal grants and laws preventing U.S. titles from publishing north of the border. In online media, where such protections don’t work, the isolation is more dire.
Our institutions of public thought are badly constrained. Canada could never have small magazines, such as The New Republic (54,000 subscribers) or the Weekly Standard (81,000) or Britain’s Prospect (40,000), because once you divide those numbers by 12 (the population difference between English Canada and the U.S.), you don’t have enough subscription revenue to support even a single staff member. And even those magazines rely on volunteers and low freelance rates; a world-class weekly like The New Yorker or the Times Literary Supplement would be inconceivable. We’re stuck reading theirs. It’s the reason we have only one think tank with more than 100 people on staff, while the United States and Britain have scores of them.