Could Canada Have 100 Million People? Should It?

John A. MacDonald dreamed of tying the northern tier of this continent with lines of steel from Halifax to Vancouver. Diefenbaker dreamed of a Canada of the North. Stephen Harper, ever the less imaginative Tory, wants us to be able to pay the same sticker price on books that Americans do. This, it seems, is what passes for a national vision after seven years of Conservative government.

Others have some bigger ideas. In the Globe and Mail, former Finance Minister John Manley suggests that Canada increase its immigration quotas so that we could be a country of 50 million by 2036. Arrival City author Doug Saunders made an even more ambitious argument more than a decade ago, calling for a country of 100 million. In a similar argument last year, Saunders invoked another Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, who predicted in 1902 that Canada would “soon” be a country of 25 or 40 million. It’s 110 years later and we are, just now, rounding in on the 35 million mark.

How many people Canada “should” have is an iceberg of a question, with 80 percent of the assumptions below the waterline and out of sight. But if Laurier thought it was desirable for Canada to have a population of 25 million soon after his 1902 speech, he was dreaming of a country where the Dominion would have a demographic heft roughly one-third that of the United States (which had a population of 76 million in 1900). A proportional target today would mean a Canada of 100 million—and aiming for 125 million by the late 2030s.

Quadrupling Canada’s population in a lifetime, say, might leave some people gasping. But there’s no shortage of people out there looking for a well-governed, advanced economy in which to raise their kids. Thirty-seven million people already list Canada as their number one preferred destination, and it’s hard not to believe we couldn’t gather some second-round picks from people locked out of the US or Australia.

Is there room for that many Canadians? This is a more complicated question than it might appear. Obviously, our country is enormous, but we don’t drop immigrants randomly from helicopters throughout the prairies: they overwhelmingly choose to settle in one of a handful of metro areas—two-thirds in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. All else being equal, a Canada of 100 million means a Greater Toronto Area of more than 20 million. Given that we can’t even build infrastructure sufficient for the 6 million we have, that seems like a tall order.

It would be different—and less complicated—if we had a reliable way to encourage people to move into the demographically troubled parts of the country. The Ontario government expects its vast, underpopulated north to stagnate by 2036, increasing by a fraction of a percent while the GTA adds 2.5 million people. (Though most of that growth will be in the suburbs.) The problem is that from Alaska to North Dakota to Fort McMurray, the only reliable way we’ve found to get lots of people to move somewhere cold in a hurry is to find oil there, and that’s a strategy with some hard limits.

Another idea: Canada could welcome immigrants to specific cities that have a bit more room to grow than our already bursting metros, at least until Toronto gets its act together. (In the US, people are half-seriously proposing the “Detroit Visa” along the same lines.) This wouldn’t and shouldn’t mean keeping immigrants out of the big metros, but it could mean spreading the burden of settling new arrivals a bit.

(Or, if we’re imagining the fictional universe where the federal government welcomes millions of new immigrants, we also imagine a provincial government that funds the infrastructure and a city government that does the planning needed for them all. And while I’m at it, a pony for everyone.)

All of this avoids the question of whether it would actually be desirable to be a country of 100 million or more. Certainly Saunders thinks so, arguing that Canada would be self-sufficient in a cultural way, with a large enough market that Canadian writers could make a living telling Canadian stories to Canadians. This slides by the problem that for many Canadians, this new country wouldn’t be the one they thought they’d tell stories about when they got older.

We have a pretty clearly revealed preference here from Canada’s voters: if they wanted a government that was going to open the floodgates to new immigrants, they could have elected one. If nobody is proposing to do that, they could start telling pollsters that’s what they really, really care about until someone eventually listens. Instead, we have a country that’s happy to stay small, wealthy, and utterly inconsequential. That may upset some writers, but, if so, it’s because they haven’t won that argument in 110 years of trying.

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