A small eastern Ontario town of overwhelmingly white voters of a Conservative bent is hardly the place one might look for an endorsement of multiculturalism in Canada.
The welcome Perth has given to four Syrian refugee families – and the fact sponsors were able to find two Arabic speakers among the town’s healthcare professionals – demonstrates that it is the public, not politicians, who are making multiculturalism work.
This is important, because as Doug Saunders observes in his challenging book, Maximum Canada, “Canadians, almost uniquely in the Western world, remain supportive of immigration and its resulting proliferation of skin colours, linguistic backgrounds and religion.”
Saunders, who is chief international correspondent of the Globe and Mail, makes the case in this book for a Canada of 100 million people by 2100. It seems an ambitious goal, considering that the 2016 census counted only 35.2 million Canadians. Yet, given the maintenance of even present levels of immigration and our current birth rate, we will come close to ninety million by the end of the present century.
Why not step that up a notch, as recommended by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, and bring in 450,000 newcomers a year, making sure we’ll attain the hundred million mark? (Our current target is 330,000 in 2019 and 350,000 in 2020.) If we do reach the 100 million mark by 2100, we’ll still be 180 years behind the United States; they did it in 1920.
There’s much to the Canadian population story, and Saunders delves into the political and economic circumstances that have caused Canada to lag in growth.
It began with a desire to keep Canada British (except for the French already in Quebec) with an economy restricted to farming and pulling natural resources out of the ground,
Canadian towns in the 19th century struggled as self-sufficient communities, each with their own gristmill, brickyard, and furniture maker, but no industries of a scale capable of export. The leading Canadian thinker of the late 1800s, Goldwin Smith, argued that “the great industry of Ontario is farming,” and thought it should stay that way. Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy of high tariffs protected what industry Canada did have. It also turned Canada into a branch plant economy, with consumers paying higher prices for everything from clothing to cars.
Ironically, Saunders observes, what population Canada did gain came not primarily from Britain, but from the United States. The trickle that began with the United Empire Loyalists grew to a small deluge of American farmers moving into the Canadian prairies to take up the last available homesteads in North America.
It was not until Wilfrid Laurier’s turn at power, from 1896 to 1911, that a serious effort was made to expand Canada and take advantage of the larger U.S. market. Saunders writes of this time:
That decade and a half, viewed from the distance of a century, is the most productive and expansive time Canada has ever experienced – a decisive break with the minimizing impulse and the advent of an entirely new approach to building the country.
Even so, the Laurier era ended with voters’ rejection of reciprocity with the U.S. that would have brought free trade in farm produce and resources. Most of another century would pass before the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement of 1988, followed by the NAFTA pact that is now under threat from Donald Trump.
For decades Canadian immigration policy was mired in racism. “None is too many,” a Canadian government official said famously in the 1930s, while rejecting the admission of Jewish refugees, many of whom would later die in Nazi concentration camps.
Earlier, this had been exemplified in the turning away of the Indian vessel Komagata Maru that attempted to bring Hindu workers into British Columbia, and in the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants.
Not until after the Second World War did Canada replace quotas with a merit system, and also began to admit large numbers of refugees, first from Hungary and later Vietnam and currently Syria.
As Saunders’ book makes clear, for most of our history we’ve had too few people to produce the scientists, artists, writers and business achievers in the numbers needed to make Canada thrive. Our market’s been too small, and our pool of investment too shallow.
“Imagine a larger Canada,” Saunders asks in Maximum Canada “The places that feel crowded and jam packed today would feel less claustrophobic and more spacious in a maximum Canada, because they would gain the transportation networks and public spaces only a larger population can support.”
To achieve that goal, Canadians will have to rework everything from housing policies (more high density construction, preferably low rise, in inner cities) to meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous nations. Doug Saunders’ vision of a Canada expanded by three times its present size may seem an audacious goal, but there is nothing to stop us from reaching it.