The Cost Of 100 Million Canadians

Martin Collacott: The cost of 100 million Canadians

By Martin Collacott
Special to the National Post
June 22, 2010 7:00 am

Last week, National Post op-ed contributor Irvin Studin recommended that Canada increase its population to 100 million in order to become a serious force to be reckoned with on the international stage (Canada: Population 100 Million, June 18). While such a goal may appeal to some, how many of us would be prepared to put up with the problems that would accompany such massive population growth?

Studin harks back to Wilfrid Lauriers 1904 prediction that the 20th century would be Canadas. While we did not achieve the pre-eminence Laurier envisaged, Studin believes his dream can be realized in the 21st century if we can achieve a dramatic growth in population which, needless to say, will be possible only through increased immigration.

The trouble with this plan is that what might have been feasible under the conditions that existed in Lauriers time would have serious negative consequences today.

For one thing, people living in Canada a century ago had a relatively modest environmental impact. Today, in contrast, our ecological footprint and consumption of resources are among the largest in the world. The Science Council of Canada cautioned more than three decades ago that Canada should slow down the growth of its population (then only 24 million compared with 34 million today) given such considerations as the fact that our prime agricultural land was limited and that we were one of the most energy-intensive countries in the world due to our hostile climate and energy-dependent lifestyle. The Science Council suggested that the biggest international contribution we could make in terms of consumption of resources was to moderate our population growth and strengthen our position as an exporter of food, services and technologies.

Another important difference is that we now have a generous system of government-funded social benefits that did not exist in Lauriers time. A century ago, immigrants had to make it on their own. If they werent able to—and many fell into this category—they returned to their countries of origin or tried their luck somewhere else. Today, by contrast, even well-educated immigrants often have trouble finding suitable jobs. The average earnings of newcomers are much lower, and poverty levels much higher, than people born in Canada and those immigrants who arrived prior to 1980. This costs Canadian taxpayers tens of billions of dollars a year.

It is doubtful, moreover, whether people living in our larger cities would welcome massive population increases. While Studin envisages new cities springing up in the Maritimes, the Prairies and the North, it is not at all clear how this will come about. With the exception of locations where there have been major new natural-resource developments, we have had limited success in creating economic opportunities that lead to significant growth in areas of the country where the population is stagnant or in decline, and there is no reason to expect this situation to change in the future.

In the circumstances, newcomers will continue to settle in places such as Toronto and Vancouver, where residents already have to deal with long commute times and expensive housing and are hardly likely to welcome a tripling of their populations. While some of the megacities of the world make interesting places to visit, they never rate among the most livable for the vast majority of their inhabitants.

Perhaps the most serious challenge would be to integrate into Canadian society tens of millions of additional immigrants who come from very different cultural backgrounds. While Canada has thus far done a better job than most countries of integrating newcomers, sheer numbers will make this more difficult. Ethnic enclaves continue to grow in size and number in our larger cities; and the connections immigrants are now able to maintain with their former homelands through satellite TV, the Internet, inexpensive overseas travel, etc., make successful assimilation of large concentrations of newcomers and strengthening of social cohesion increasingly uncertain even at current levels of intake.

Having said all this, I would not deny that having a larger population, economy and military would, as Studin argues, serve Canada well in a number of respects. They would certainly enable us to press our claims in the Arctic more effectively as well as stand a better chance of defending our territory in general if one day we were called upon to do so. All things considered, however, the massive increase in population he proposes would create far more costs than benefits.


Martin Collacott is a former Canadian ambassador in Asia and the Middle East and lives in Vancouver.