Much of the influence of larger countries flows from their institutes and think tanks. Volumes of vital research and political development spring from such places as the Urban institute (450 full-time thinkers), the Brookings Institution (250), the Hoover Institution (320), or the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (220). Canada has only one institute with more than 100 staff – the Conference Board of Canada. The next largest is the right-wing Fraser Institute, with 64 staff, followed by the C.D. Howe Institute, with only 21 – and then a whole bunch with a handful of people stuffed into a single office. Too many of our institutions are too small to matter – and so is our talent pool.
Even if you don’t care about culture, politics and thought, you’ll pay the price. The economic and fiscal cost of underpopulation was measured last September by Ottawa’s Parliamentary Budget Officer. It makes for grim reading.
At current rates of immigration and population growth, the average age of Canadians will soar. Canada’s old-age dependency ratio – that is, the proportion of the population dependent on government pension and health-care spending (i.e., those over 65) will more than double from 20 per cent today to 45 per cent of the population in the 2080s.
This will cause GDP growth to plummet, from 2.6 per cent annually to 1.8 and below. Government debt will increase by 3 per cent annually, and Ottawa will either have to raise taxes or cut its spending by a dramatic amount, which estimates show would be comparable to the emergency cutbacks of the mid-1990s. A decent social safety net, world-class foreign-policy and military spending, infrastructure, universities and ecological programs will become unaffordable – unless we can expand Canada’s population base sharply in the next few decades.
How to build a bigger Canada
The difference between a stagnant population and a robust one is less than you may think. By increasing Canada’s population growth rate of 0.8 per cent per year (based on 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants annually) by 50 per cent, we would have 75 million people in 50 years and 100 million by the end of the century.
To do this, we would have to attract between 400,000 and 450,000 immigrants per year, or about half the rate (as a percentage of the population) of the Laurier years. Canada’s low birth rates (averaging 1.6 children per family) will pull that number down, but that would be counterbalanced by the youth and higher first-generation birth rates of the new immigrants.
It wouldn’t last forever – immigrants always merge with their host country’s family size within a couple of generations, and the surge of youth and productivity will be temporary. But it would hold us through the 21st century, during which the entire world’s population will stop growing, level out, and start falling. Canada should use this moment – now – to start boosting its base population so we are on a world-class footing before the world reaches “peak people” and immigrants become increasingly difficult to attract.
In some ways, that competition has already begun. Australia’s government, influenced by the “Big Australia” movement, which calls for a doubling of population, has made entry much easier for its immigrants.
We need a “Big Canada” movement and – given our economic needs, our labour shortages and the continuing pains of underpopulation – this is the time to launch it.
Doug Saunders is a Globe and Mail correspondent based in London and the author of Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World, winner of the 2010 Donner Prize for writing on public policy.
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