Skip to main content

Whenever the idea of dramatically increasing immigration comes up, that Sir Wilfrid Laurier line is sure to be trotted out. You know the one: The 20th century will belong to Canada. The actual quote was that just as the 19th century had been the century of the United States, so Canada would "fill the 20th century." The phrase is always invoked as an indictment against Canada's present, and its smallness of vision. Laurier told us that one day we'd be big man on campus. And yet here we are, all these years later, somewhere between the 10th and 16th largest economy on earth.

In his 1904 speech to Ottawa's new Canadian Club, Laurier engaged in more than a bit of hyperbole. It's an occupational hazard of politics, in any era. But in the years before the First World War, many people really did believe that Canada was on its way to becoming one of the world's best-governed and richest countries, and one of its most populous.

Related: Ottawa unveils strategy to court foreign tech talent

Opinion: How can immigration improve our standard of living?

Analysis: Big Canada concept has some major drawbacks

The first part of that prophecy – call it Model Canada – came to pass. Canada is a world leader when it comes to peace, order, good government and prosperity. But the second prediction – Big Canada – never happened. For some people, it remains a missed opportunity, like a ship that never sailed, but still could.

The thing is, Big Canada is a 20th-century idea. In the 21st century, it doesn't compute. It's an anachronism, like going online in 2016 and trying to book passage from the Old Continent to the New World in steerage class, on a steam-powered ocean liner.

But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the age of hyper-nationalism, Big Canada made a great deal of sense. The size of one's population mattered. It was one of the attributes that allowed countries to survive, and avoid being conquered by their neighbours. Population was military power. And a little more than 100 years ago, it was widely believed that the British Empire's centres of population and power would soon be fast-growing Canada and Australia, not Britain.

If that had come to pass, it might have changed history. Back in 1914, the Kaiser would have been reluctant to go to war if Britain and her dominions, instead of having fewer people than the German Empire, had far more.

And in 1939, if Adolf Hitler told his generals of his plan to fight France, Britain and the 100-million strong Dominion of Canada, they would have overthrown him. The Nazis would have had no hope of victory against the overwhelmingly superior wealth and population of the British Commonwealth, led by that industrial colossus, the arsenal of democracy, Big Canada.

It's fun to dream about what might have been. But the problems a much more populous Canada might once have solved are themselves locked in the past.

The main question today for Canadians and their governments should be what can be done to make us and our fellow citizens, and generations to come, safer, freer, happier and wealthier.

The Trudeau government is on the right path in at least asking how to boost incomes in the long run. At the same time, on Monday the government put its recently acquired obsession with Big Canada on hold, at least for now, when Immigration Minister John McCallum sidelined the recommendations of the advisory council on economic growth, and announced the immigration target for next year will be 300,000, the same as this year.

The research shows an at-best tenuous connection between population growth and economic success – and the government's own polling shows voters expressing little appetite for the large increases in immigration needed to bring about Big Canada, several decades from now.

In his 1904 speech, Laurier pointed out that the Canada of his day was already more populous than "many of the nations of Europe who have filled history with their fame and renown." His list included Switzerland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. A century later, these countries, along with Canada, are among the handful leading the world in quality of life. And Canada already has more people than all of them combined. Ontario's Greater Golden Horseshoe alone has as many people as Sweden.

Can Torontonians of the future be made more prosperous and happier than the Swedes, simply by ensuring that, in a few decades, Toronto and its suburbs have three or four times as many people as Sweden? Can a Canada that currently has one-ninth the U.S. population be made better off simply by raising our population to, say, one-seventh that of our neighbour?

Other than setting this country up to jump into a time machine to refight the battles of the last century, it's not clear what Big Canada is supposed to accomplish.