If you were in London 110 years ago to watch the coronation of King Edward VII, it would have looked a lot like the scene of this month’s royal jubilee, with one notable exception: In 1902, the route of the royal coach, visited by millions of people, had been transformed into a giant advertisement for immigration to Canada.
The largest public-sector ad campaign in the country’s history had led Ottawa to erect giant sheaves of wheat over The Strand in London, to establish recruitment bureaus from Reykjavik to Moscow promising “homes for millions.”
Prime minister Wilfred Laurier made no secret of its purpose: to increase Canada’s population tenfold as soon as possible, and thereby turn the country from a sparsely populated colony into a major, independent nation with its own culture, its own economy and its own institutions, capable of influencing and bettering the world, rather than simply being buffeted in the world’s tides.
“We are a nation of six million people already; we expect soon to be 25, yes, 40 millions,” Mr. Laurier declared. “There are men in this audience who, before they die, if they live to old age, will see this country with at least 60 millions of people.”
It was the largest immigration wave we’ve experienced, three times the rate of today’s influx, and arguably the most important human event in Canada’s history, ending its colonial culture. But it was a failure: It only doubled Canada’s population in the short term, and helped cause it to increase just fivefold in the next century.
Today we need to recognize the fact that, despite what Laurier did a century ago, Canada remains a victim of underpopulation. We do not have enough people, given our dispersed geography, to form the cultural, educational and political institutions, the consumer markets, the technological, administrative and political talent pool, the infrastructure-building tax base, the creative and artistic mass necessary to have a leading role in the world.
Because our immigration rates have remained modest and our birth rate is low, our population will grow only slightly – to perhaps 50 million by mid-century. By that point, the world’s population will almost have stopped growing and it will be difficult to attract large numbers of immigrants. At current rates, Canada will have lost its chance to be a fully formed nation.
It is time to act. Canada should build its population to a size – at least 100 million – that will allow it to determine its own future, maintain its standard of living against the coming challenges and have a large enough body of talent and revenue to solve its largest problems. All it takes is a sustained and determined increase in immigration, to at least 400,000 permanent immigrants per year.
This will not be free: Immigration requires support and assistance. But it will become much more expensive in the future, when shrinking world populations make immigrants scarce, and Canada’s crisis of underpopulation becomes expensive.
The moment when the United States stopped being dependent on the ideas, imports and expressions of other countries was exactly when it passed the 100-million mark, shortly before 1920. It was at this point that the U.S. developed the world’s first conservation program, the first progressive taxation system and the first great national infrastructure program. It was this population level that turned America into the capital of the modern world.
Whenever Canada’s ideal population is studied, the 100-million figure comes up. In 1968, a group of scholars, policy advocates and business leaders formed the Mid-Canada Development Corridor Foundation, which argued that a population of at least 100 million was needed to have a sustainable and independent economy. In 1975, a study by Canada’s Department of Manpower found that economies of scale leading to “significant benefits to Canadian industry” would occur only after the population had reached 100 million. And more recently, in 2010, the journal Global Brief argued in detail that Canada needs that much population for geostrategic, defence and diplomatic reasons. This population level would give Canada “new domestic structures coupled with growing international impact and prestige,” the journal argued, that would turn it into “a serious force to be reckoned with.”