Commentary by Howard Anglin
There are some ideas so daft that it takes a very smart person to think of them. Or, in the case of a new proposal to triple Canada’s population to 100 million by the end of the century, it takes an entire committee of smart people.
The authors of this particular idea are the fourteen members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, who issued their first report last week. To most Canadians, the idea is so preposterous as not to bear analyzing. Crumple it up and start again. But, as these are supposed to be serious thinkers — selected, according to a government press release, “because they are recognized, forward-thinking individuals in their respective fields” — it’s worth taking their proposal at face value.
Dominic Barton, the global managing partner of management consulting giant McKinsey & Co and the committee’s chief advocate of “a Canada of 100 million,” worries that without significant population growth, Canada’s international “relevance” will suffer. This is an odd thing to say, and an even odder thing to care about. How many Canadians, waking in the dark this morning, bundling their children into winter jackets and out the door to school, give two pucks for Canada’s “relevance”?
The disconnect between Mr. Barton, who lives in London, and the concerns of most Canadians was described in a recent column by Peggy Noonan as “something we are seeing all over, the top detaching itself from the bottom, feeling little loyalty to it or affiliation with it.”
“In Manhattan,” she says, “I see the children of the global business elite marry each other and settle in London or New York or Mumbai.” Having lived in London, New York, Washington DC and Ottawa (though not Mumbai), I’ve seen this phenomenon up close. Mr. Barton and his transnationalist peers think of Canada in terms of personal convenience and corporate expediency; to most Canadians, it means their home and community.
According to the Canadian Press, Mr. Barton believes “the world would benefit from a larger version of Canada’s stable, diversified democracy and economy” — but in the same breath he admits that 100 million “is a big number” that “would obviously change the country considerably.”
He fails to explain why we should believe Canada would remain the peaceful, pluralist society we currently enjoy after we added 65 million new people. Or why we would risk our remarkable and (looking around the world) extremely rare security and prosperity for … for what? “Relevance?”
There is no reason to think a Canada of 100 million would be a better place to live and good reasons to think it wouldn’t. Of the twenty countries with the highest per capita GDP, only the United States has more than 100 million people. Most have fewer than 10 million.
The bias against size carries across other national virtues. Happiness? Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland. Income equality? Sweden, Hungary, Norway. Reputation? Sweden, Canada, Switzerland. See a pattern?
The Trudeau government’s own immigration policy belies the Advisory Council’s assumption that more immigration will result in net economic benefits. Under the previous government, economic immigration as a percentage of overall immigration approached 67 per cent; under the new government, it has fallen to 53 per cent. In other words, there is a lot that can be done by better selecting immigrants within existing levels before we consider increasing intake.
It’s true we are a large country, with plenty of open space, but recent immigration has not filled that emptiness and future immigration is likely to follow the established paths to our cities and suburbs. Even at current, historically high immigration levels, Canada’s population is projected to grow by more than 20 million in the next 35 years. Are you ready for a Toronto of 20 million and a Vancouver of 10 million?
None of this will affect the members of Trudeau’s Advisory Council. For them, immigration is something that happens elsewhere. The acres of tract housing sprawling into farmland and greenbelts around our major cities are glimpsed by these people only in the minutes before takeoff and landing. Hopping between leafy downtown enclaves and luxury hotels, they won’t feel the strain on our roads, hospitals and schools, or the deterioration of our built and natural environments.
Industry Minister Navdeep Bains has already cautioned that he is hearing pushback from Canadians. This isn’t surprising. The government’s own polling shows only 8 per cent of Canadians think immigration should increase, while three times as many believe it is already too high. And that was before the Trudeau government increased annual levels to 300,000 already this year.
A government ignores clear public opinion at its peril — and at the nation’s. Significantly increasing immigration levels in defiance of the clear preference of Canadians, including recent immigrants, invites a sharp public backlash of the kind we’ve seen in the United States, the U.K. and Europe. Those who decry Trumpism should be the most vocal opponents of this proposal.
Unlike management consultants, citizens ask questions that are beyond the Advisory Council’s remit. Questions like: What will it mean to be Canadian after we’ve added 65 million new people? What holds our society together when immigration is so rapid that integration becomes impossible?
However smart the Advisory Council members may be, it’s average Canadians who are displaying common sense. They know that size is not a meaningful measure of national success. And they have seen from experience that when immigration is accelerated too quickly, multiculturalism becomes a centrifugal force — no longer holding successive waves of immigrants in a stable tension but driving us apart.
Howard Anglin was the chief of staff to Canada’s minister of Citizenship and Immigration from 2011 to 2013.
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