Canada’s population reached 37.6 million people in 2019. That is more than 500,000 people over last year, the largest population increase in one year since Confederation. It represents an annual growth rate of 1.4 percent, the highest among G7 countries. This is encouraging news, especially if you believe the world needs more Canada, and that it’s important to ensure our prosperity for future generations.
What has driven the increase? Immigration. More than 310,000 immigrants came to Canada in 2018-19. This is also good news. We are on the right trajectory and heading in a positive direction. There is just one concerning problem, however. We are not aiming high enough.
Amid the glowing statistics is a cautionary tale: Canada’s population is aging. Our birth rate is falling below the fertility replacement rate of 2.1. This is the average number of children born per woman, the rate at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next without migration.
We are a decade away from a true demographic pressure point. At that point our aging population will mean a decline in workers, increases in health care costs, and other challenges to our economy and standard of living, because there will not be enough workers to pay for all of our social programs. If we don’t get behind more ambitious population growth targets now, current trends will put our population at approximately 50 million people at the turn of the century. The average life expectancy for a child born in Canada will be 91.6 years, and our population will be not just aging, but old.
We need urgent action now – and we need to be deliberate, thoughtful and strategic about how we proceed.
What Canada needs is a population of 100 million by the next century. Century Initiative is a nonpartisan organization founded by Canadians concerned about what state the country will be in for coming generations. It makes the case for the ambitious target in its inaugural report, For a Bigger, Bolder Canada: Long-Term Thinking Starting Now. The report outlines a vision for Canada in 2100, with 10 big recommendations to achieve the target.
If we don’t act now, we will put at risk the programs and services we enjoy and expect, such as health care, public education, and support for young families and older Canadians. We will fall short of our potential as a country, not only at home but in our influence in the world.
This warning comes at a fortuitous time. The general election has focused Canadians on what comes next for the country. During the federal campaign, Canadians heard from party leaders about their visions for stimulating our economy, creating jobs and maintaining our prosperity. There were debates over health care, infrastructure, job creation and climate change.
But the divisive issue of immigration was not a hot-button issue, unlike the situation in a growing number of countries. Although for many Canadians that conversation would be offensive, even here immigration has the potential to become a partisan issue. But we must not be taken down the rabbit hole of rhetoric.
A growing population is not to be feared. Rather, it should be celebrated. For Canada, it means economic growth and long-term prosperity. Canada is underpopulated. It needs more people. There simply are not enough people to take advantage of the opportunities. There were 506,000 job vacancies in the first quarter of 2019, according to Statistics Canada. This is an increase of 44,000, or nearly 10 percent, over the same quarter in 2018.
Canada should be leveraging the talent of the people who are under-represented in our economy: Indigenous people, women, people with disabilities and seniors. But even if we succeed in bridging the gap in their participation, it still would not be enough to guarantee long-term prosperity.
Unfilled jobs cost the country. It loses out on income taxes and personal spending, and funding for social programs is more challenging. Also lost are the innovation, ideas and growth created by people in the workforce.
In Canada there is still fairly broad public support for immigration, but that could easily change, as the Century Initiative report emphasizes. That’s why it’s imperative that we have a national conversation and take action to scale up Canada’s population. Educating Canadians about the economic case for immigration may well be the most crucial step in this endeavour.
The economic case for scaling up our population to 100 million Canadians by 2100 needs to be widely heard so that the conversations we have, as we build a brighter, bolder and more prosperous country, are based in fact, not fear.
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