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The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief, John Ibbitson. (Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail.)
The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief, John Ibbitson. (Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail.)

To ensure prosperity, immigration reform must not halt the flow of newcomers Add to ...

In a triumphalist speech at the Calgary Stampede, Stephen Harper vowed that, as long as Conservatives were left in charge, Canada would be the exception to the developed world’s decade of decline.

“I’m determined that Canada will continue to outperform Europe, the United States and Japan,” Mr. Harper said, “that we will not fall into the long-term difficulties that those economies are facing.”

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Nice to hear. But the Harper government needs to take care that its immigration reforms don’t generate a backlash that could bring about those very difficulties.

A recent Ipsos Reid poll shows that 36 per cent of Canadians believe that this country’s high immigration levels are harming the economic recovery.

The good news is that 41 per cent believe immigration is doing more good than harm. Nonetheless, three quarters of all Canadians (72 per cent) don’t want immigration levels to increase, as this newspaper has urged. Only three in 10 (28 per cent) would welcome even more new arrivals.

If nativist fears choke Canada’s unparalleled intake of 250,000 newcomers a year, the economy will suffer. New data from the Economist magazine proves exactly that point.

For decades, now, European countries have struggled with the risk of a shrinking population, which happens if women have fewer than an average of 2.1 children and the pace of immigration doesn’t make up the balance. European governments have done everything in their power, through daycare and early childhood education programs, to increase the fertility rate, with some success.

But with the onset of the recession, Europeans once again stopped having babies. “Whether countries have high fertility rates, like Britain, or low ones, like Hungary, the trend is similar,” the Economist reports. “A 10-year fertility rise stopped around 2008 as the economic crisis hit, and started to slide in 2011.”

There are two reasons for this: With the onset of the recession, young couples decided to put off having children, and immigrants remigrated because there were no jobs for them.

In a long-term, global context, depopulation can ease pressure on the environment. Short-term, however, demographic decline can be devastating. Low birth rates and little immigration leave too few young workers to pay into pension plans on which older workers depend. There are too few consumers buying homes and cars and dishwashers, forcing builders and manufacturers to shut down.

Japanese economists cite aging and depopulation as major contributors to that country’s decades’ long economic decay.

A strong economy and a robust immigration policy have protected Canada from the demographic shock of decreasing fertility. The latest Statistics Canada data show that our birth rate actually improved from 1.5 in 2000 to 1.7 in 2011. Nonetheless, by 2030 any increase in the Canadian population will come almost entirely from immigration. That is why it is so vital to keep the public onside.

Since winning its majority, the Harper government has been increasingly aggressive in reforming immigration policy. Many of the reforms are useful, even vital, such as limiting the ability of criminals and economic migrants to game the refugee system, and streamlining the approvals process to ensure new arrivals have the right skills to fill worsening job shortages.

Other measures are more controversial: limiting public health care for many refugee applicants; cutting back on family reunification programs; scuffling with Manitoba over settlement funding; dealing with backlogs by simply cancelling applications.

The danger is that the reforms could feed resistance to immigration itself, even as the government moves to correct abuses and inefficiencies.

Canada, Mr. Harper declared, is a “great country rising” that will belong to the “next generation of economic powers.”

The best way to guarantee that happens is to continue bringing in hundreds of thousands of young, creative, skilled new workers every year. If we ever stop doing that, if the tide of opinion ever turns against immigrants, then Europe’s destiny must eventually become Canada’s.

The iron laws of demography offer no other choice.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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