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Immigration Minister Marc Miller delivers remarks at a press conference in Ottawa, on Dec. 21, 2023.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Immigration Minister Marc Miller made the media rounds on the weekend promising to think about – maybe, perhaps, possibly – capping the number of international students Canada accepts, and pinning the blame for an “out of control” problem on others.

“Well, we’ll consider it. We’ll consider it, and we’ll continue to consider it,” Mr. Miller told CTV’s Question Period. “If provinces don’t do their jobs, we’re ready to do it.”

Mr. Miller suggested the runaway growth in Canada’s foreign student population had been the fault of the provinces, who have failed to “rein in those numbers,” as if Ottawa had not been complicit in the recent transformation of the country’s postsecondary education system into one addicted to foreign-student tuition fees.

The federal government alone has the authority to issue – or deny – visas to foreign students and temporary workers. It needed no prodding from the provinces to massively ramp up their numbers. Indeed, not that long ago, it was boasting about it.

“International education makes a large and growing contribution to Canada’s prosperity,” notes a 2018 federal document outlining Ottawa’s 2019-24 International Education Strategy. “Educational expenditures by international students have a greater impact on Canada’s economy than exports of auto parts, lumber or aircraft.”

The federal strategy, titled Building on Success, was based on the faulty premise that more is always better – that because Canada seemed to have benefited economically from a rising foreign student population that it could profit even more by issuing even more study visas.

The same logic seems to have been behind the federal government’s decision to allow the number of temporary foreign worker visas to grow without limit since 2021 and increase the number of new permanent residents the country accepts annually by almost 50 per cent.

The Liberals figured they had found a sweet spot that aligned with both their progressive politics and the desire of businesses to recruit more workers abroad and postsecondary institutions to offset shrinking government subsidies with foreign tuition fees.

Instead, they ended up creating what National Bank economists Stéfane Marion and Alexandra Ducharme identify as the developed world’s only “population trap.”

Such a situation, in which a country’s population grows faster than its investments in new capital stock, usually only arises in emerging economies. But Mr. Marion and Ms. Ducharme note that Canada’s private non-residential capital stock to population ratio has been declining for seven years and is no higher now than it was in 2012.

That is a recipe for collective impoverishment.

It is not just that Canada’s population growth has outpaced the increase in the country’s housing stock, creating an acute housing affordability crisis. Business investment in productivity-enhancing equipment and technology has been in a free fall. After all, why invest in automation when you have access to a seemingly limitless pool (thanks to Ottawa’s Visas ”R” Us attitude) of temporary foreign workers.

“Since 2019, real non-residential investment per capita has grown 11.5 per cent in the United States but shrunk 8.6 per cent in Canada,” Desjardins Group chief economist Jimmy Jean wrote in a Jan. 12 note. “[T]he ratio of the capital stock to the working-age population may have recorded its biggest decline in half a century in 2023.”

The worst part of it all is, this was entirely avoidable. Indeed, The Canadian Press reporter Nojoud Al Mallees recently obtained documents under an access to information request showing that the deputy minister of immigration was warned in 2022 by the department’s own bureaucrats about a “misalignment” between population growth and housing supply.

The document is undated, and it is unclear whether current deputy immigration minister Christiane Fox, who took over in mid-2022, read it and passed the warning on to then-immigration minister Sean Fraser. (Ms. Fox is being promoted to deputy clerk of the Privy Council on Jan. 27. She is being replaced as immigration deputy by Harpreet Kochhar, the current head of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency).

In November, 2022, Mr. Fraser unveiled “an immigration plan to grow the economy.” The plan revolved around boosting the number of permanent residents Canada accepts to 500,000 in 2025, from 341,000 in 2019. It contained no measures to control temporary immigration, which increased by 41 per cent, to 2.5 million people, in the year to Sept. 30, 2023.

The fallout is now plain for all to see.

“Frankly, I’m surprised we screwed it up because we sit in such a privileged position in Canada,” Toronto-Dominion Bank chief economist Beata Caranci mused last week, noting that this country has not faced the same influx of economic migrants seeking asylum that the United States and Europe have been grappling with. “We designed our own policy, we put it in place, we implemented it, and we still screwed it up.”

National Bank’s Mr. Marion and Ms. Ducharme warn that annual “total population growth should not exceed 300,000 to 500,000 if we are to escape the population trap.” Canada’s population grew by more than 430,000 in third quarter of 2023 alone. You do the math.

Reducing immigration numbers will not be easy. Businesses and postsecondary institutions will bellyache and the Liberals risk alienating some progressive and ethnic voters. Paradoxically, it could cause short-term economic pain by temporarily reducing domestic consumption.

But cutting immigration is no longer an option that Mr. Miller can just “consider.” It must be his top priority.

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