Ottawa Writers Festival: The meaning of 100 million Canadians

Doug Saunders. Photo: Greg Tjepkema

Canada is a great and prosperous country. But that prosperity always seems so fragile. And as we grapple with a protectionist United States in contentious trade talks we may rightly wonder how we can maintain our standard of living.

One of the keys could be a domestic market sizeable enough to withstand the winds of change outside national borders.

Canada’s population is something that Doug Saunders, the Globe and Mail columnist, thinks about … a lot. So much, in fact, that he has been writing about it since the millennium turned. He’s written a lot of column inches on immigration and movements of peoples over the years from places such as Los Angeles and London, Eng.

He now has a book called Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough.

The book is, Saunders says, the “culmination of thinking about Canada from afar and trying to make a serious study of Canada’s history and how Canada is built.

“I became interested in that at the beginning of the century when I was living in Los Angeles. One of the first things I did, in 2001, was to abstractly ask ‘What is the ideal population of Canada?

“Living in California, with more people than Canada, I could see population density allowed certain things to happen in business and government.”

Despite the impression left by smog alerts and massive traffic jams in Los Angeles, Saunders says California’s population density has actually allowed it to be more ecological.

“Its green building and transportation programs are well ahead of Canada’s and are a model for how to  move toward being carbon neutral.”

Struck by the facts in front of his eyes, “I set out trying to find the ideal population for Canada that would not use any more land than is being used right now. The answer that demographers provided always hovered around the 100 million mark.”

Some even said that the Canada that is mostly located along the 49th parallel could actually balloon to 400 million people if it sought the population density of The Netherlands, which remains a pretty green and pleasant land.

His discoveries prompted an essay pushing the idea of 100 million Canadians.

Turns out he’s not the first person to say this.

The federal government identified the same target number in 1965 and reiterated it in the 1970s.  Even last year the federal advisory committee on economic growth advocated getting to 100 million by 2100, he says.

Maximum Canada, then, is a discussion about that target and what it might mean. It is also a look at the country’s demographic history.

One of the myths of Canada is that we have been populated by waves of immigration. Yes, people did come here, lured by cheap land and wide open spaces. But what is less well known is that for most of Canada’s history, the number of immigrants has been balanced by the number of emigrants.

“It is a fact of our history that even when immigration policy induced waves of settlement, the outflows to the U.S. and elsewhere equalled the intakes.

“As well, the various ruling elites actively tried to frustrate immigration. We were really governed for too long by the idea that we should shut ourselves off from the Americans and be different from them ahead of anything else. From that starting point I wanted to tell a population history of Canada because Canada looks very different when viewed through that lens.

“The standard history books only really talk about arrivals in the 1830s, 1870s and 1920s. They miss the next part, that many of those new arrivals left,” he said. By 1945, 3.7 million people had come to Canada and 3.3 million had left.

After the Second World War that changed and our population has grown steadily to reach about 35 million in 2017. And what we have is a pretty good place, Saunders says.

“The problems we have are of capacity and of future capacity not of livelihood.”

Maximum Canada is also a caution. If we want to triple our population we will need to be organized about it and start planning now, he says.

“There is a reason the central chapter is called The Case Against 100 Million. Now that it has become a consensus around why population growth is important … we need to step back and flag that fact that the next tripling of population won’t be as easy as it was from 1945 to 2015.

“We need to think this through and lay some tracks before the train comes along. That means addressing the housing shortage and the problems of a very different structure of employment. We need to fix problems in small group business creation, transportation infrastructure and isolated neighbourhoods  before we grow.”

Saunders says we probably need to do these kinds of things anyway in part because our population will grow even if we do nothing to speed immigration up. He says Canada will at least double in size by 2100 to 70 million.

“But, if, for some reason, we wanted to freeze the population as it is now, we need to recognize the costs of a small population. There would be an increase in poverty and inequity and there would be a big ecological cost. A non-growing population with low density will make it very difficult to move to carbon neutral.”

Is it time to get serious? Probably.

“In the worst case scenario, we probably face a world without as much globalization as in the 1990s-2000s as countries become more protectionist.”

Things could spring back, he says, and there could be a middle ground, but we need to be prepared for the idea that the old model where Canada could do well with low population and a small consumer market is past.

“We want to make sure that if an economy emerges that is built on artificial intelligence and automation (for example), that we are the country that is exporting the AI and the robotics, not the country that is victimized by it.”

Our cities need to be readied for more density and more people.

“Canada’s cities are interesting animals. They were unplanned. We didn’t think of ourselves as a country that has cities really until the 1960s. We were a country of farmers and rural resource industries. Immigration agents were actually instructed to encourage those with education and entrepreneurial interests to go to U.S. instead.

“Our cities weren’t intended to be cities. They mostly came into being after the car.”

Cities are where the economy happens, where immigration happens and where poverty happens, he says.

Saunders believes we have a chance now to get ready for change.

“Canada is a prosperous country now. Before free trade it was harder to live here. Stuff was very expensive. Canadians have made peace with fact that being part of North American economy has not destroyed culture or industry.”

Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough
Doug Saunders (Knopf Canada)
In town: The author is at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Christ Church Cathedral on Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.