In last week’s cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promoted Sean Fraser, one of his government’s rising stars, from immigration to housing. His job in this new portfolio is to fix the problem he contributed to in his old one.
Mr. Fraser must find a way to ease this country’s critical housing shortage, a problem the Liberal government is stoking by bringing in more than a million newcomers a year to Canada.
High levels of immigration bring growth, energy and confidence to our country. But they also bring problems. Mr. Fraser must fix the worst problem of all, or risk undermining the Canadian experiment.
In 2022, Canada welcomed 437,000 new permanent residents. Add in temporary foreign workers, international students and other non-permanent residents, and you have a population that is now growing by more than a million people a year, or 2.7 per cent, by far the highest growth in the G7. Today, we are 40 million people.
Statistics Canada estimates that “such a rate of population growth would lead to the Canadian population doubling in about 26 years.” Given that Japan, South Korea and most European countries are declining, or soon will decline, in population – thanks to low birth rates and little or no immigration – Canada a generation from now could be one of the larger developed countries, equal to or even ahead of Germany, France and Britain in population.
These new arrivals help ease labour shortages caused by retiring baby boomers. In 2010, 14 per cent of Canada’s population was 65 or older. Last year, it was 19 per cent. By 2030, it will be around 23 per cent.
The shortages are made worse by Canada’s falling total fertility rate (TFR), which reached a record low of 1.4 children per woman in 2020 – far below the replacement TFR of 2.1 children per woman.
Those who argue that Canada should increase its birth rate rather than rely on immigration to stabilize or grow the population are just wrong. Hungary, Singapore and the Nordic countries have adopted natalist policies to get their fertility rate up to 2.1. They and others have failed. Governments should always support women who want to have children and still preserve their career path. But that is a matter of social equity.
In most respects, then, this Liberal government’s policy of expanding Canada’s already robust immigration policy has been a good thing. But it also contributes to an acute housing shortage. A recent TD Bank report predicts that, if current trends continue, the gap between housing supply and demand could reach 500,000 units through 2025.
For Mr. Fraser’s part, “I can tell you that, 365 days a year, I will choose the problem of having to rapidly build more houses because so many people want to move to my community over losing schools and hospitals because so many people are leaving,” he told Maclean’s magazine when he was still immigration minister.
Now “the problem of having to rapidly build more houses” is his to solve.
Because he’s a Liberal, Mr. Fraser will likely approach the problem through a combination of regulations and incentives. He would be wise to also steal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s approach: require municipalities to loosen restrictions on development as a condition of receiving grants.
In truth, everything is needed: converting vacant office buildings to condominiums, densifying existing neighbourhoods, increasing the supply of subsidized housing and, whether you like it or not, permitting suburban sprawl.
Thus far, Mr. Poilievre has avoided calling for limits to immigration. He recently told journalists that immigration targets should be “driven by the number of employers who have job vacancies they cannot fill with Canadians, by the number of charities that want to sponsor refugees, and by families that can reunite and support their loved ones here.” That could easily get you to a million new arrivals, permanent and temporary, a year.
Much is at stake. If Canadians attribute unaffordable housing to high levels of immigration, they may demand cutbacks.
That would be tragic. Whatever the challenges, new Canadians enrich this country. By coming here, they vote their confidence in Canada’s future and help to realize that future.
We should welcome a million new arrivals a year. We just need to find places for them to live.