How many immigrants does Canada need?

March 2018

I am a ‘basketball mom’. Less familiar than ‘soccer mom’, this phrase describes a person who spends most of her free time ferrying children to basketball practices and driving to tournaments hours away from home.  A high tolerance for whistle blowing is required for the role.

As a basketball mom, I was aware that the game of basketball was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith. My children regularly play against teams from the Naismith Basketball Association, located in Almonte, where James Naismith was born.

What I didn’t realize was that James Naismith didn’t invent basketball in Canada. Instead, he developed the game while working at a YMCA in Massachusetts. 

In his book Maximum Canada Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough, author Doug Saunders tells the story of James Naismith, as well as James L. Kraft and Alexander Graham Bell.  These Canadians all had to move to the United States to find investors, resources, and markets to develop their entrepreneurial ideas.  In their era, Canada was seen only as a provider of raw materials for British industry.  Rather being selected to for their skills or entrepreneurialism, immigrants were selected for their ability to work in mining, forestry or agriculture. 

While exploring the history of Canada through the lens of population, Saunders analyses Canada’s immigration policies. He examines how political decisions have impacted the type and number of immigrants that Canada has accepted. He argues that the impact of these decisions has been a country which lacks a sufficient population density to develop the infrastructure its citizens need.

Take Toronto. Many have argued that Toronto is accepting more than its fair share of the immigrants coming to Canada, causing transportation gridlock.  Saunders argues that in fact, Toronto doesn’t have a sufficient enough population density (and therefore taxpayer base) to fund the high-efficiency public transportation system it needs outside of its downtown core.  Its housing model simply doesn’t provide for this density make-up. 

Further, Saunders argues that more densely populated cities are less ecologically damaging. A denser population needs less material infrastructure and uses less energy. 

He also notes that many immigrants to Canada come from areas of the world that are more densely populated. Yet, when these immigrants come to Canada, they end up having no more children than Canadians do.  Additionally, when they remit money back to family members, those family members also end up having less children. Apparently, prosperity leads to a lower birth rate. This is something I find paradoxical.  However, as a result, a higher Canadian population does not mean more pollution or environmental degradation, but rather less.

Saunders sees immigration as an opportunity for Canada to grow its metropolitan densities. He urges Canada to seek out more immigrants now, because by mid-century, most of the countries where our immigrants come from will be experiencing population decline.  Canada will then be competing with other countries for a dwindling supply of migrants. 

However, he doesn’t agree that Canada should bring in a sufficient number of immigrants to reach a population of 100 million. This is a figure which was floated a few years ago by the government advisors who created the Century Initiative. 

Instead, Saunders is leery of increasing the population through immigration, unless there are sufficient employment opportunities, housing prices are at a level where there can be an integration of neighbourhoods, and the foreign credentials of skilled immigrants can be recognized. Canada would have to make some upfront investments in the systems that help immigrants integrate prior to making a commitment to radically increase immigration.  He says that it is better to have less immigrants, than to tip public opinion against immigration.

He and I disagree on this point. As a signatory to the 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Status of Refugees, Canada has an obligation to resettle refugees, whether or not it is in our economic benefit or politically advisable.  Though, many are of the opinion that settling refugees is in Canada’s economic interests.

Others disagree that Canada will need a large number of immigrants to compensate for an aging demographic. In a podcast for the Global Affairs Institute, Andrew Griffith argues that Saunders has ignored the impact that technological innovation will play in Canada’s employment needs.  For example, compared to the past, the use of automation in the manufacturing sector will mean less workers are needed.  

Since my children’s basketball fees are paid from the money I earn helping people immigrate to Canada, it would be foolhardy of me to completely agree with Griffith. Thankfully, the Canadian government agrees that immigrants bring necessary skills and entrepreneurship to Canada.  This is why in 2017, it committed to a three-year plan which will see an increasing number of immigrants brought in annually, up to 340,000 by the year 2020.

You can read a condensed version of Saunder’s thesis in his article for the Walrus magazine. He also commented in the Globe and Mail about Canada’s three-year immigration plan.