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Canada is a nation of immigrants - but are current targets too low for its strategic interests?

iStockPhoto / Getty

For the Liberals today, holding to what Trudeau called the radical middle on the political spectrum, solid ground is becoming narrower as both Conservatives and the NDP pretend to be liberals.

It's important for us to remember the other plank that has always been part of the Liberal agenda when we have been successful: We stand for building Canada, not sitting pat. Liberals have always known that Canada needs to be built every day, enlarging the reality of what it means to be Canadian. Citizenship, the flag, PetroCanada, Canadian content quotas on broadcasts, health care, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - all opposed by the Conservatives - are our legacy to our fellow Canadians.

The Tory normal agenda does not envisage new government initiatives. Instead it normally stands for restraint and cutting back. If the provinces can do it, let them. If the private sector can do it, let it. If we can do without it, let us. This message sometimes resonates (not always a bad thing), but Canada-building slows down under Conservative governments.

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A plank for Liberals today comes from reflecting on Laurier's vision, that, on the world stage, the 20th century would belong to us. Why did we fall short of his vision? We had, and even more today have, almost everything going for us. A bigger land mass than the United States, India or China, an increasingly accessible treasurehouse of resources of energy and minerals, abundant fresh water, boundless arable land and forests, a fundamentally sound and effective government structure, a functioning respect for the rule of law. We have an educated and ambitious citizenry. In addition, we are situated in the world's safest neighbourhood, protected by water and distance from the world's historic and current trouble spots, adjoining the world's most prosperous democracy, the United States, where people really like us.

So what went wrong? It's obvious. We don't have enough people. The Liberals should stand today for a strategic immigration policy of reaching 100 million by 2100.

If we become a nation of this size:

1. Our culture would be less strained to survive. Our arts, books, magazines, newspapers, movies and music, electronic media, with more than triple the producers and consumers would become self-sustaining. They might even become better. Our comedians could be funnier. Our elusive search for definition as Canadians could be realized.

2. Canadians could better take up our vast opportunities. Domestic markets that justify branch plant operations today could attract Canadian entrepreneurs from the start. We would be a serious stand-alone market. Truncation could be reversed. Foreign capital coming in would be more challenged by growing Canadian domestic capital. We could still welcome foreign investors, but we would give them more of a run for their money, and see our economy benefit.

3. On the world stage, our skills at exercising soft power by finding project partners and leading by example could be supplemented by some "hard" power. We could address and solve problems single handedly if we wanted. Our military could be comfortably triple its present size, as could our aid programmes.

4. We Canadians believe we stand for something good in the world, that we have some values and some institutions worth promoting in the interests of international social harmony, peace and prosperity. At 100 million, the world audience might be more alert.

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Before turning to some conditions of the strategic plank I recommend, two points need to be made. Firstly, Canada's ecology is changing. We oppose global warming for good reasons and should continue to do so, but we can see it coming, and it brings certain advantages to Canada. We will have much more arable land and a much broader range of foods that we will be able to grow - foods that the world needs. This is already happening. More farmers are needed. Also Northern opportunity is becoming, and has become, viable. Northern waterways are now accessible eight months a year, a window that is increasing. We need cities up there, and people for them. Secondly we should not ignore the growing world population and the growing number of refugees worldwide. It is not inconceivable that world organizations may begin telling us to increase what we now consider to be a generous immigration policy. Today's limits are stingy for us. We could get ahead of this and gain world respect for doing so.

So far, our policies on immigration have had three prongs, including refugee reception and family unification. The third prong, economic immigration, has been basically to fill gaps as our economy evolves, but not to stretch it. The last time Canada had a strategic immigration policy was in the early 19th Century as loyalists arrived from the United States and America began to flex its muscles: The British promoted European immigration to Canada to maintain our sovereignty against possible American invasion. It's time to think strategically again. Let me express a debt for this idea to Professor Irvin Studin for his article in Global Brief in June, 2010, which got me thinking.

It is estimated that we could reach the target of 100 million or something close to it, by increasing the present annual target from 250,000 to 400,000 per year. This could add cost to government, which needs to be accepted, but the impact of this increase, financial and social, should be quite bearable as we grow.

We would also probably need to direct some immigrants and commit them to stay somewhere for periods of as much as 10 years. We would do this to hold support for the policy in our "crowded" cities, to satisfy some provinces as to their proportionate place in Confederation and to prepare for the optimum population distribution for our long-term opportunities. The natural preference some immigrants might have to be, for example, near their existing ethnic community in Canada might need to be challenged. Are there potential immigrants willing to accept such conditions? The fact is that there are hundreds of millions of them. Permission to come to Canada could be the greatest event for their family in its history, as it was for most of us. Such immigrants would not be subjected to the isolation of many of our foreparents, where a young couple could be completely alone on the Prairies, miles from other humans for months at a time. With the Internet, Skype, radio and television, there would be a lot to compensate for accepting conditions.

Clearly there is a lot to be thought through. But the ultimate value of building a Canada able to fulfill Laurier's great vision for our future is a worthy commitment for today's Liberals.

Robert Kaplan was first elected as an MP in 1968 and served as solicitor-general under Pierre Trudeau and John Turner

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