Canada has been the worst performing advanced economy in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development since 1976. Governments of all partisan stripes have tried and failed to reverse the trend. If nothing changes, the OECD projects, our economic growth per capita will continue to stagnate for decades to come. This article is part of an occasional series called Per Capita, which examines how and why policy interventions have come up short – and how fresh approaches to economic growth are urgently needed.
A growing cohort of analysts are tempering their enthusiasm for Canada’s recent economic performance for a simple reason: Strong population growth is bulking up the numbers.
Last week, the Bank of Canada projected that real gross domestic product would increase by 1.4 per cent this year, up from a previous forecast of 1 per cent, and by 1.3 per cent in 2024. The central bank said a key factor in its 2023 upgrade was the surge in population, which is expanding the pool of labour and consumers.
Canada’s population rose by just more than one million people in 2022, an annual increase of 2.7 per cent that was the largest since the late 1950s. This is part of a deliberate plan from the federal government to boost population through higher immigration.
For that reason, some economists say they’re paying more attention to growth in real GDP per capita – or economic output per person, adjusted for inflation – than they used to. And on that front, Canada’s economic performance is decidedly weaker: Per capita output in 2022 was roughly the same as in 2017.
The near-term outlook doesn’t show much upside. Even if population growth cooled to 2019 levels, per-capita GDP would still decline for the next two years, based on the Bank of Canada’s projections for output.
“I don’t see that the federal government is focused on per capita GDP, they’re just focused on GDP,” said David Williams, vice-president of policy at the Business Council of British Columbia.
“If you crank up population growth, sure, the economy gets bigger. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not facing stagnating living standards for the majority of Canadians.”
GDP per capita is often used as a proxy for living standards. The metric is positively correlated with life expectancy and well-being – residents of more productive countries tend to live longer and report being happier.
It is not a perfect measure of prosperity. Per capita output in Canada is around three-quarters of that in the U.S., according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, although Canada enjoys an average life expectancy at birth that is roughly five years longer. However, the U.S. is an outlier in life expectancy among wealthier countries.
Canada’s productivity struggles are hardly new and have been debated for decades. Benjamin Reitzes, a macro strategist at Bank of Montreal, recently noted that the average annual growth in real GDP over the past 10 years was 1.8 per cent, but only 0.6 per cent after adjustments were made for population gains.
Ottawa is aware of this issue – and the potential for decades of mediocrity. In the 2022 budget, the federal government mentioned an OECD forecast that predicts Canada will have the weakest per capita growth among its member countries from 2020 to 2060. “The stakes are high. Most Canadian businesses have not invested at the same rate as their U.S. counterparts,” read the budget.
While Ottawa has acknowledged this productivity issue, some economists are calling on governments to focus more on per capita growth and how to bolster it. (The 2023 federal budget did not repeat its mention of the OECD projection.)
“No per capita growth means Canadian living standards are stagnant,” Mr. Reitzes wrote in a recent note to clients. “Historically, policy makers haven’t paid much attention to the per capita metric. Hopefully, that changes soon.”
The federal government is ramping up immigration levels in the coming years, targeting the intake of 500,000 permanent residents annually by 2025. Most of Canada’s population growth last year was driven by temporary residents, including workers and international students.
Ottawa has frequently said that raising immigration levels is necessary to fill jobs and boost economic growth. However, some of its recent policy decisions have made it easier to fill low-wage roles in lower-productivity sectors with temporary foreign workers.
“We’ve normally tried to target the best and brightest,” said Mr. Williams. “But it seems that there’s been a shift in Ottawa toward saying, ‘Hey, let’s fill these very-low-wage, entry-level jobs.’ And that’s a concern.”