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Sean Speer: Not all population growth is created equal

Commentary

Last week the popular American economics blogger Noah Smith published an essay entitled “Maximum Canada” in which he outlined the success of Canadian immigration policy and the benefits of a bigger national population. 

His observations follow similar commentary in recent months in favour of the so-called “Century Initiative” in which Canada aspires to reach 100 million residents by 2100. The basic premise is that a much larger population would boost Canada’s economic and geopolitical influence around the world, lessen its asymmetry vis-à-vis the United States, and create a bigger domestic market for trade and commerce.

These arguments are generally compelling. There’s certainly something of a correlation between population size and global influence. The exceptions are far outweighed by the rule. 

The main problem with this analysis however is that it’s too focused on population growth as an end and fails to properly scrutinize the means. Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne recently argued for instance that the target of 100 million Canadians by 2100 isn’t even that ambitious because it broadly tracks population growth patterns over the past several decades. As he explained: 

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.

Yet there’s something qualitatively different about population growth that’s driven by a combination of natural growth (births minus deaths) and immigration and growth that solely comes from immigration. Smith, Coyne, and others fail to grapple with these key differences. 

It doesn’t mean that Canada shouldn’t aspire to have a larger population or even necessarily that we shouldn’t pursue an immigration policy that ultimately gets us there. But before fully signing onto “maximum Canada”, we need to account for the fact that all forms of population growth aren’t the same. (This isn’t, by the way, a normative judgement. It’s merely an observation about the practical differences between a society that draws on immigration to supplement its own natural growth and one that relies on it entirely.)

Let’s start with the data. Replacement level fertility is an average of 2.1 children per woman. As Coyne notes, Canada’s fertility rate dipped below replacement level beginning in the early 1970s. It’s now just 1.4 children per woman (see Figure 1).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Fig1_CanadaFertilityRate_graph_v1-1170x835.jpg
Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

Although the country’s fertility rate has been below the replacement rate for the past half century, its current rate represents an unprecedented low. As Figure 1 shows, it has steadily fallen to now below the G-7 average and is increasingly one of the lowest rates in the world.

That means that immigration isn’t just doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to population growth. It’s now nearly solely responsible. Take 2022 for instance. Canada’s population grew by more than 1 million people—the largest single-year growth since 1957—and immigration was responsible for roughly 96 percent. 

Estimates are that immigration will reach 100 percent of population growth by 2032 and will remain the main driver for the coming decades. As a result, Statistics Canada projects that the overall share of Canada’s immigrant population (which consists of landed immigrants) will rise from 23.4 percent in 2021 (see Figure 2) to as high as 34 percent in 2041. 

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

There are various ways in which immigration-driven population growth is different than natural growth. These differences will ostensibly produce outcomes that are distinct from past experiences and therefore may limit the utility of historical instruction. There’s an onus on proponents of the Century Initiative to account for them in their analysis and advocacy. 

The first is that it’s older. Although the immigrant population is generally younger than the average age of non-immigrant residents, it’s still self-evidently older than babies. The majority of immigrants fall within the core working age group (25 to 54). Just over one quarter are aged 15 and younger. Immigration-driven population growth may slow the rise of (and even temporarily lower) the country’s average age but it won’t, according to leading economist David Green, “substantially alter Canada’s age structure and impending increase in the dependency ratio.”

The second is that it’s far less geographically distributed. More than half of recent immigrants settle in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver and nine of ten settle in a census metropolitan area. Natural growth by contrast would presumably more closely reflect the general distribution of population across the country. Immigration-driven population growth should therefore be expected to impose even greater pressure on housing and other infrastructure in our major cities and contribute to a growing urban-rural divide in our economic and political outcomes. 

The third is that it will reshape the country’s culture. That may not be a bad development—particularly in the eyes of those who value diversity—but it still represents a qualitative difference relative to natural growth that requires a bit more attention. 

Consider two scenarios. First, there’s a strong possibility that it erodes the place of the French language and francophone culture in our national life as Quebec’s share of the total population declines and its conception of binationalism is fully consumed by multiculturalism. Second, it’s also possible that it could at times conflict with the goal of Indigenous reconciliation to the extent that immigration-driven growth produces a growing share of the population that can plausibly argue that it has no role or responsibility for the historic injustices faced by Indigenous peoples. (There are growing calls—including from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—to expand newcomer education about the Indigenous experience presumably to mitigate this risk.)

These considerations don’t challenge the case that immigration has been a net positive for the country or that we should maintain high immigration levels in the face of aging demographics or even that we should aspire to a bigger population. They do however dispute the idea that the source of population growth is irrelevant. Natural growth and immigration-driven growth may produce the same number but their effects are necessarily different. 

What is envisioned by the Century Initiative and others is essentially without precedent. Immigration has never been solely responsible for such a run-up of Canada’s population. History cannot provide much of a guide. Only prudence can. 

A prudent position would be to recognize the benefits of large-scale immigration without assuming that it can be raised to unprecedented levels or become solely responsible for the country’s population growth free from consequence. Maximalist ends without due consideration of the consequences of maximalist means is rarely the basis of good public policy. Immigration is no exception.

Howard Anglin: Canada could learn from France about protecting kids from porn and Big Tech

Commentary

The saintly editors here at The Hub have agreed to my request to produce one of my two monthly articles for the site as a monthly transatlantic diary. For those readers not familiar with the format, which is more common in British journalism, the diary is a grab bag of short items, sometimes on a common theme, but often not. In my case, what they have in common is that they are either too inconsequential to merit a full article or I can’t be bothered to come up with more than a knee-jerk reaction or a flip comment. This is June.

Canada was well-represented in the old country this past month as King Charles III took his birthday salute astride Noble, a black mare gifted to him by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It was the first time the monarch had ridden for the Trooping the Colour since the Queen rode her own beloved RCMP horse, Burmese, in 1986. Burmese famously acquitted herself well at the Trooping the Colour in 1981, when a mentally-addled teenager fired six blanks at Her Majesty from a replica revolver. A trained police horse, Burmese calmly carried the Queen to safety as the Household Cavalry closed ranks and the parade continued uninterrupted. Noble has a ways to go to match her late compatriot’s sangfroid, as she appeared rattled by the large crowd lining the Mall and several times the King had to bend low and whisper soothing words. Her occasional skittishness aside, visiting Canadians were able to cheer a new Canadian King on a new Canadian mount. It is good to see any tradition continue, but this one was especially poignant.

***

As it happened, I was in town that day, but not for Trooping the Colour. I had popped down to order summer shirts and meet friends for lunch. It was one of those days that makes one instantly regret being in a city. Every stone and pavement had absorbed the bright sunshine and I was assailed by cloying heat from all sides. Lunch was at Andrew Edmunds, one of the few places in London that still offers honest food, a fairly-priced wine list, and relaxed charm but has not fallen prey to “influencers.” I am confident that anyone filming a TikTok would be promptly and not-so-politely asked to leave, if not by the owners then by their fellow diners. Unfortunately, the restaurant is also small, and while this is a cosy blessing in the winter, on this day it meant three large men were squeezed into a window seat while the bright sun glared mercilessly through the glass. A bottle of cool white burgundy fairly evaporated in our glasses, though that probably can’t be blamed on the sun. As enjoyable as lunch was, it was a relief to get back to the bosky North Oxford shade by evening. 

***

A flying visit to Paris to see my sister and nephews took me to the Jacquemart-André to see the Giovanni Bellini exhibit. A few years ago I saw the spectacular Caravaggio exhibit there—easily one of the three best exhibits I’ve been to— and while the Bellini did not quite meet that impossible standard, it was a sensitively-chosen and thoughtfully-paced selection, without a single superfluous piece and including several outright masterpieces. In other words, it is what one would expect from that gem of a museum. Highlights were the Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels from the Gemäldegalerie and Mantegna’s Ecce Homo from their own collection. When we got home, the nephew who accompanied me was inspired to get out his paints, which is all one can ask of such a visit. The nephew had been before (to the museum, not the exhibit) for a classmate’s birthday, and was excited to show me the tail of a monkey that extends out of the trompe l’oeil mural on the café ceiling. There are, I reflected, obvious benefits to a Paris childhood. 

I forget how it came up, but at some point in our conversation my sister mentioned that the boys were not allowed by French law to have social media accounts. I looked this up later and it’s true: last year, France passed a law barring children under 13 from having social media accounts and requiring children under 15 to have parental permission. The ages are still too low—I’d set the ban at 18 regardless of parental indulgence—but at least the government is doing something. I read somewhere that the French laws passed with unanimous support in the National Assembly, while here in Canada, not a single party is even proposing to protect children from Big Tech’s predations. Researching the French restrictions, I also learned that France requires proof of age to access pornographic sites, which is another no-brainer on which Canadian legislators are dragging their feet, though at least it is on or near the agenda. This seems like a good opportunity to leverage the blessed discipline of stigma for the common good: which party is going to take a stand for the commercial interests of online pornographers?  

***

Back in Oxford, June saw the election of a new Oxford Professor of Poetry, which was quite exciting for the sort of person who gets quite excited about that sort of thing. The post is a prestigious one, having been held by some of the great names of English (and non-English) letters, including Matthew Arnold, Cecil Day-Lewis, WH Auden, Robert Graves, and Seamus Heaney. A quick perusal of the full list since 1708, however, reveals that these luminaries are very much the exception. Some of the older names that are remembered at all are remembered for something other than their poetry. How many who admire the ornate brickwork of Keble College still read John Keble’s cycle of devotional poetry, The Christian Year? And if anyone reads Maurice Bowra’s verse today, it is likely to be the scurrilous and scatological stuff that used to circulate privately among tittering dons. Nevertheless, the role is, as I said, prestigious, so much so that candidates campaign for it, sometimes crookedly. During the 2009 election, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott withdrew after rumours of sexual harassment were spread by supporters of rival candidate, Ruth Padel. Whether Padel knew or approved of these tactics remains unclear, but in any event she resigned after only nine days. For her sacrifice, Padel was appointed Professor of Poetry at King’s College London; Walcott, for his sins, was exiled to the University of Alberta. 

This year’s election was scandal-free. The favourite (as far as one can tell in these things) was the Scottish poet Don Paterson, but my vote was for Mark Ford. I backed Ford not for his poetry, which I like just fine but not as well as Paterson’s, but because he is one of the great contemporary expositors of poetry for a general audience. Notwithstanding the implications of the title, the Oxford Professor of Poetry is not required either to teach or to compose poetry; his main task is to deliver 12 public lectures, one each term for four years. Ford’s essays in the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books are models of the style, and so I voted in anticipation of his lecture series. Although Ford was not elected, I am not displeased with the actual winner, AE Stallings. She is a lively poet whose work is formally sound. It is also often classically themed, which befits someone who lives full-time in Athens, though she will have to work hard to match the classical eccentricity of the very first Oxford Professor of Poetry, Joseph Trapp, who was reportedly fond of extemporising Shakespeare’s verse in Latin. Now that’s a party trick.

***

With the end of the month approaching, it was back home for Dominion Day, Stampede, and the permanent charivari of Canadian politics, about which more next month.