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book review

Doug Saunders.

The strongest argument in favour of 100 million Canadians by the year 2100 is that Canada, should it be around by then, would have not one but perhaps 30 or 40 Doug Saunders types in its population. This is no trivial matter, for Saunders is not only the leading international-affairs columnist in the country today, he is one of only three or four serious, full-time international affairs columnists in Canada tout court. For a Group of Seven country that finds itself suddenly with an American neighbour that has lost its political bearings, and a former British mothership whose inept, Brexiteering political class has nothing to teach us, this is an unacceptable state of affairs.

Check into bookstores across Canada, where Saunders's important book should be front and centre, and the ratio of American and British books to Canadian ones is not 10 or so to one, as goes the conventional wisdom, but likely 50 to one. The ratio on the magazine shelves is not dissimilar. Everything is moving online, you say? Alas, the ratio there is even more painfully in our disfavour. The result is a beautiful country – Canada – that, for lack of enough people in sufficiently critical masses, is on many critical and existential questions unable to really think for itself – whether we realize it or not.

Saunders's new book provides a highly professional explanation of how we came to our present "crisis of underpopulation" – and why this crisis has beset Canada and pre-Confederation versions of Canada since the European landing. Saunders frames our country's history as a ferocious battle between two idiomatic worldviews held by Canadian and British imperial elites, policy makers and regular Canadians alike: on the one hand, the "minimizing impulse," and on the other, the "maximizing impulse." He is clearly in the maximalist camp.

The minimizing impulse privileges a conception of a largely rural Canada anchored essentially in Britishness (sometimes anti-Americanness), racial whiteness and a strictly defensive national trading posture. It saw its key moments, in Saunders's account, between 1812 and early Confederation, with the Durham Report of 1839 serving, mid-century, as a catalytic vehicle, and between the 20th-century governments of Robert Borden and John Diefenbaker (inclusive). The maximizing impulse, for its part, found its most fruitful historical expression during the extremely high immigration periods of the Laurier governments, and again from 1967 to the present, where an important but precarious national consensus continues to hold in favour of such "maximizing" vectors as immigration, multiculturalism and free trade.

Saunders is at his most persuasive in emphasizing that most of Canada's modern history consists not of immigration into our country, but indeed of net outmigration and exodus – bleeding – by millions who went on to make their fortunes in, and pay taxes to, other countries, clearly to the loss of Canada and the Canadian project. This outmigration favoured the United States in particular, as it enjoyed sufficiently large markets, labour pools, investment capital and civilizational chutzpah to offer, as a general rule, a better quality of life than that of Canada, better opportunities and the opportunity to dream big and place life bets.

By contrast, Saunders explains, insufficiency of population – specifically, insufficient concentrations of population – has consistently cost modern Canada talent, compromised our attempts to build large leading companies (and control them) and, not least because of a small national tax base, crippled our ability to meaningfully bind the country through common institutions. An excessively small population creates a vicious circle of demographic exodus and, with notable exceptions, national underachievement that further consolidates the Canadian crisis of underpopulation.

The macro answer: Grow Canada's population to 100 million (granted, a symbolic quantum) by century's end. In this call, Saunders's book builds on a growing number of public interventions in favour of this vision, including my own, those of Andrew Coyne, the late Robert Kaplan, Scott Gilmore, Terence Corcoran and even Jean Charest. The Century Initiative, an ambitious new think tank, was created explicitly to prepare Canada for our evolution to 100 million. To be sure, many commentators, including Martin Collacott and David Suzuki, have opposed this vision, variously on integration and environmental grounds. Saunders does a reasonably good job of taking most of the arguments against 100 million head-on.

Indeed, if Saunders correctly shows that a larger population, especially if properly concentrated, will, other things being equal, lead to far better environmental outcomes for Canada (and, may I add, for the world entire), he underappreciates the most significant argument against 100 million Canadians – what I call the argument from Quebec. The argument from Quebec was best synopsized to me by a colleague in Montreal, who politely declared: "Irvin, tu veux nous noyer." Advocates of 100 million as an organizing framework for the future of Canada ignore this warning at their peril, and at the peril of Canada. For if it is not guaranteed that Canada will be around at century's end (a contingency that should be at the heart of 100-million thinking for all those dreaming about the future of the country), we can be sure that improper attention to the fate of Quebec in the context of a far larger population will lead to the collapse of the country. Why? Because Quebec enjoys a quasi-constitutional understanding today to the effect that it will always have a reasonably constant share of the aggregate Canadian population.

How to reckon with the argument from Quebec? Answer: Quebec must always have its share of the national population (and new immigrants) and – wait for it – the vast majority of future generations of Canadians (incumbent and immigrant alike) across the country will have to be properly bilingual in French and English. Only real bilingualism across the country can create the requisite domestic labour market, internal migration and political talent pool that can keep our country together in the context of very significant population growth over this century.

What about Canada at 100 million in the world of the 21st century? For an international affairs commentator, Saunders is surprisingly understated on this front. Many of his very reasonable arguments in favour of a "maximum" or "maximizing" Canada seem independent of time and space. There is, for instance, almost no treatment of the strange, highly capricious new administration in Washington – a turn of events not only symptomatic of the end of American global leadership, but also suggestive of a major opportunity for Canada to seduce and pick off top Americans, in countless fields, to join the Canadian project.

The recent public comments by the top Canadian officer at NORAD to the effect that the Americans will not necessarily defend Canada in the event of missile attacks from, say, North Korea speak directly to the 100 million framework. Are we a colony or can we think for ourselves? If we wish to think for ourselves, do we have the necessary strategic imagination and vocabulary to do so? For now, we patently do not, in large part because we do not have the institutions, literature and talent to generate the requisite thinking and seriousness of purpose. This, again, is in large part a question of population – and, for certainty, the more "term-setting" mentality that will come from Canadians at 100 million.

The Northwest Passage, not discussed at all in the book, will present a new, largely open border for Canada this century – in the event, with a huge, complex country called Russia. Can Canada manage – let alone defend – such a huge border, in all its dimensions, with only 100,000 people living across our three northern territories? Answer: No way.

So we will definitely need many, many more people in the North this century – for our survival alone. This means that, if Canada is around by century's end (my sincere wish, and very much the point of my own 100 million interventions, nationally and internationally, over the past decade), we will need to think and dream very long term. We will have to expand our collective strategic imagination, and reformulate our mental map of Canada in the 21st century. This more capacious conception of Canada should convince us that 100 million Canadians does not mean that all those extra Canadians will live in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and the cities and towns we know today. Nay, there will surely be new Canadian cities and megacities this century, and many with names still to be invented.

Irvin Studin is editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief Magazine, and president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions.

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