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It began, as Quebec political-class freakouts often do, with a front-page splash in Le Journal de Montreal. QUEBEC TRAPPED BY OTTAWA, the headline in Saturday’s paper screamed.

Over eight traumatized pages, the paper’s reporters and columnists worked themselves into hysterics at the “news” that federal immigration policy aimed to expand the country’s population to 100 million by 2100.

Quebec will find itself drowned in a sea of 100 million Canadians by the end of the century,” the paper reported, in its customary tone of objectivity, “if the massive immigration targets announced by the Trudeau government last fall materialize.”

“We don’t know how everyone will be housed or transported,” it wailed. “Or how he will be cared for by our overwhelmed health service.”

Worse, it would “put the survival of French in North America in stark jeopardy,” along with Quebec’s political weight within the federation. It quoted former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Benoît Pelletier mourning the “irreversible” decline of Quebec as a French-speaking society within Canada.

Mind you, it concedes, 100 million Canadians is not actually federal policy: it’s a proposal of the Century Initiative, an activist group, admittedly Liberal-adjacent (it was co-founded by Dominic Barton), but no more than that. But still: don’t current federal immigration targets – 465,000 this year, 485,000 next year, 500,000 in 2025 – “pave the way towards achieving this objective”? That is, if they were to be maintained for another 75 years after that?

The paper’s columnists were quite certain they do, and what is more, that this was no accident. According to Richard Martineau, it’s all part of a deliberate plot, hatched by Pierre Trudeau and continued by his son, “to dilute the French-speaking presence within Canada,” to “drown” (that word again) Quebec, etc. They’re trying to “finish Quebeckers off” agreed Denise Bombardier. “Quebec drowned in a 100 million Canada … without any debate!” fumed Mario Dumont. The paper’s cartoonist, Ygreck, repeated the watery metaphor.

There was a lot more in that vein. Theories of powerful figures using immigration as a weapon to subdue and replace the host population are consigned to the racist fringe in most societies. In Quebec they’re mainstream.

What, then, was the reaction among the province’s political leaders? Was it: Le Journal is a race-baiting rag, and we will not dignify this latest attempt to prey on its readers’ fears with a response? Er, not quite. The province’s minister of immigration, Christine Fréchette, declared that Quebec would not allow Ottawa to “impose” its immigration targets on it. The National Assembly passed a resolution denouncing the federal plan as “incompatible with the protection of French in Quebec.” The Bloc Québécois introduced a similar motion in Parliament Thursday.

Very well. Let us suppose 100 million Canadians by 2100 was in fact federal policy. And let us assume it remained federal policy for the next 77 years. (Does Trudeau plan to stick around that long? If so I think he should tell us.) What does this “radical” departure, this “revolution,” this “outlandish” plan (Le Journal, passim) amount to? It amounts to a significant slowing in Canada’s historic population growth rate.

Canada’s population will this year cross the 40 million mark. To get to 100 million in 77 years – two and a half times our current level – implies an annual growth rate of 1.2 per cent. By comparison, over the last 77 years, our population more than tripled, from 12.3 million in 1946. That works out to 1.5 per cent annually. To be sure, birth rates were higher in the 1950s and 1960s; population growth today comes almost exclusively from immigration. Fine: let’s take 1970 as our starting point. Average annual population growth: 1.2 per cent. The Century Initiative proposal is essentially a continuation of the status quo.

One hundred million looks like a big number compared to today; in the same way, today’s 40 million would look unimaginably large to someone in 1946. But that’s the magic of compounding: any growth rate, no matter how modest, compounded over a long enough time, yields big changes. The “100 million” headline relies for its shock value on implying the opposite: our population more than doubles, overnight. How will we possibly adapt? Over 77 years? We’ll adapt.

But back to Quebec. Current provincial policy, under the CAQ government of Premier François Legault, is to accept just 50,000 immigrants per year. At that rate, Quebec’s share of Canada’s population would drop from just over 22 per cent to less than 15 per cent, and its clout in federal politics along with it. On the other hand, if the province increases its immigration intake in line with the federal numbers, it worries it will be unable to assimilate them all, leading to a decline, perhaps terminal, in the use of French.

But is it as stark as that? Quebec used to have a larger share of the population than it does now – with less clout. Back in 1946, Quebec accounted for 29 per cent of the population. But it was inward-looking and church-dominated, with little interest in federal politics and less influence. From 1867 to then, Canada elected just one prime minister from Quebec, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Since then we have had almost nothing but: for 51 of those 77 years we have been governed by prime ministers from Quebec. Quebec issues and concerns have likewise dominated federal politics for much of that time. Its influence has grown even as its electoral weight has declined.

Neither did it require radical federal immigration plans to reduce its share of the population. The province did that all on its own. As late as 1971, Quebec still accounted for 27 per cent of Canada’s population. What happened after that? You don’t think 50 years of language-wars insanity, repeated threats of secession and the economic uncertainty that followed might have had something to do with it?

Suppose Quebec’s share of the population did dwindle in the decades to come: maybe not all the way to 15 per cent, as under the CAQ immigration plan, but to the 17 or 18 per cent implied by the less restrictive plans proposed by the Quebec Liberal Party and Québec Solidaire. (The Parti Québécois wants even fewer immigrants than the CAQ.) Eighteen per cent of 100 million people is still 18 million people – more than twice Quebec’s current population. Even if only two-thirds of them spoke French – an unlikely scenario, in a province where 94 per cent now speak the language – that’s still 12 million French speakers, versus fewer than 8 million today.

Nevertheless, the calls are already coming for the rest of Canada to rescue Quebec from its self-imposed dilemma. First, as mentioned, the province’s federal and provincial representatives are pressing the Trudeau government to cut its planned immigration intake to something more in line with the preferences of official Quebec – in effect, to let Quebec dictate federal immigration policy. Second, Mr. Legault has already floated demands for Quebec to be guaranteed its current share of the seats in the House of Commons, forever – regardless of how low its share of the population falls. And who’s to say some ambitious federal leader won’t promise to deliver on one or both of these?

That would be a travesty: of federalism, on the one hand, of representation by population, on the other. More to the point, even if “100 million by 2100″ isn’t federal policy, it should be. It’s not that we “need” that many people, as is often claimed: a country’s standard of living is decided by many more things than just how many people it has in it. We could get by perfectly well at 40 million, or at 20 million for that matter.

But there are benefits, at the margin. Larger populations mean lower fixed costs, per capita, and other economies of scale. At higher population density, transportation costs are lower. Larger economies typically generate more companies, meaning more competition for consumers. More startups and more innovators mean more chances of coming up with a “unicorn” product that conquers export markets. And so on.

Suppose we do reach 100 million by the end of the century. The remarkable thing is not that we would have grown to that size, but that most of our peers will have seen their population shrink over the same period. According to the latest population projections by the United Nations, a Canada with 100 million people would be a major world power: second only to the United States among the rich countries, having surpassed Japan (74 million), the United Kingdom (70 million), Germany (69 million), France (61 million) and Italy (37 million). We would be a quarter the size of the U.S. (we are now about a ninth), nearly as large as Russia, and, incredibly, one-eighth the size of China, whose population is projected to collapse to barely half its current level.

This has the potential to be utterly transformational. Quite apart from our position in the world, our bargaining strength and influence in international councils, it would revolutionize our sense of ourselves. Canadians, even today, tend to think of themselves as a small, inconsequential country where nothing ever happens. We’re not, of course: at 40 million, we are already in the upper fifth of all the countries on Earth. But by then it would be indisputable. No longer would talented, ambitious Canadians have to leave Canada in search of the big time: the big time would be here. Our country would be the sort of place the best and brightest come to rather than from.

It’s probably no coincidence that the most optimistic period in our history was also the period in which we enjoyed the most rapid growth in our population: the early 20th century, before the First World War slammed the gates shut. At the time, it was common for people to predict that Canada would have 100 million people by the end of the century – the 20th century, that is. Behind by a century, we may be, but better late than never.

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