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Although this country’s population grew robustly last year, our total fertility rate continues to decline, data released by Statistics Canada Wednesday reveal.

The debate over how to address the issue is going to get ugly. In some parts of the world, it already has.

Canada grew by more than a million people in 2022, because we took in just under 470,000 immigrants and almost 700,000 non-permanent residents, mostly students and temporary workers. That’s significant, because at just 1.33 children per woman last year, this country’s total fertility rate (TFR) is far below the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to maintain population stability absent immigration.

When my book Empty Planet came out in early 2019 – in which Darrell Bricker and I predicted that population decline rather than population growth would dominate this century – Canada’s TFR was 1.51. To go from there to 1.33 in less than five years is remarkable.

Some people predicted there would be a mini baby boom among millennials once the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was over. Some predicted a boom during the pandemic lockdowns. Some predicted a boom when the lockdowns ended. Wrong, wrong and, thus far, wrong, though “there is still considerable uncertainty of a possible rebounding,” said Don Kerr, a professor of demography at King’s College, Western University in London, Ont.

Prof. Kerr notes the “quite striking” variation in fertility rates among provinces. Ontario had a fertility rate of 1.27 last year and British Columbia was all the way down to 1.11, close to the TFRs of South Korea and other developed Asian nations, which have some of the lowest fertility rates on Earth. Quebec and Alberta, on the other hand, were considerably higher, at 1.49 and 1.45 respectively.

Worldwide, there is a clear trend: When women in any given society acquire the power to decide how many children they are going to have, they choose to have fewer. Many countries – including China, Japan, Russia and much of of Eastern and Southern Europe – are losing population every year. India, now the world’s most populous country, has a TFR of 2.0, below replacement rate. Latin America and the Caribbean are down to 1.85. Birth rates are falling in most parts of Africa, though this is the one region of the world with TFRs substantially above replacement rate.

Canada seeks to offset the impact of low fertility through robust immigration. But those new arrivals contribute to the housing shortage. And they are transforming the demographic map of Canada. Statscan reports there are now more temporary residents (2.2 million) in Canada than Indigenous people (1.8 million).

In the United States, many people are already raging against newcomers flooding across the southern border. The fight over race and migration is tearing that country apart.

Governments sometimes suppress fertility unwittingly. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, for instance, sought to open parts of the Greenbelt surrounding the Greater Toronto Area to development. Many of the new homes would have been three-bedroom houses with a backyard and a garage. That’s the kind of place couples who are planning to have children generally prefer. But he backtracked in the face of popular outrage, and now promises never to build on Greenbelt land.

Development will now focus on denser housing constructed on existing lands within established communities. Many of those properties will be apartments, where it’s harder to raise children than in a house with several bedrooms and a yard.

Other governments are taking concerted steps to boost the birth rate by seeking to claw back the autonomy of women, using methods that are most likely futile. In Hungary, politicians complain women are receiving too much education, which keeps them from having babies. In the U.S., Republican politicians have successfully stripped women of the right to an abortion in about half the states.

And while there are several reasons why the rights of transgender people have become a divisive issue, know this: Any movement that seeks to suppress the rights of sexual and gender minorities is only one step away from seeking to suppress the rights of women.

Declining fertility is stoking the most divisive debates of our time. Should we encourage increased fertility through subsidized childcare and other supports? Should we try to bribe women to have more children through baby bonuses? Should we restrict a woman’s right to abortion and contraception? Should we replace the missing babies through immigration? Should we move away from a growth-based economic model?

The arguments are getting louder. It will not be pretty.

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