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Donald Trump’s suspension of immigration to the U.S. was met with widespread criticism. In Canada, the reaction in some quarters will have been very different.

Canada extends from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Atlantic in the east and the Arctic in the north. It has the world’s tenth-largest economy, abundant natural resources, and a free-trade relationship with the United States.

Sharing a border with the U.S. has always influenced Canadian geopolitics. Ottawa prioritizes robust trade relations with Washington to secure access to the American market. Canada is a member of the G7 and NATO, which underlines its economic standing and commitment to preserving the American global security apparatus. In short, Canada uses its relationship with the U.S. to cultivate a reputation as a stable, reliable middle power that benefits from the status quo. Yet despite its position, some Canadians foresee storm clouds ahead.

Until its centenary, Canada embraced a vision that author Doug Saunders calls “the minimizing impulse.” This included restrictions on the number and sources of immigrants, an emphasis on resource-based industries, and limited relations with the U.S. The goal was to maintain its ethnic, cultural, and trade relationships with Great Britain.

Evidence of these policies and their results can be seen throughout Canada’s history. Before and after Confederation in 1867, and with the exception of French speaking Quebec, Canada prioritized immigration from Britain. The country maintained its Anglo identity while rejecting large numbers of Scandinavians, Germans, Italians, and other European emigres.

For immigrants that did arrive, the role Ottawa envisioned for them quickly became apparent. It was hoped that new arrivals would settle in rural areas, and work in primary industries such as logging and farming. They were to become cogs in an extractive machine that exported raw materials to Britain.

These economic policies stunted the growth of Canada’s cities, and its capacity to manufacture, innovate, and trade domestically. Most Canadians had a lower standard of living than their southern neighbors, and remained economically dependent on Britain as a market for its raw materials and a source of manufactured goods.

This arrangement was desirable to some British and Canadian politicians in part because it limited the influence of the United States. They feared that America’s rapid economic growth could undermine Great Britain’s dominion over the seas as well as Canadian sovereignty. Any trade agreement that benefited the U.S. was unacceptable. The U.S. economy surpassed Britain’s during the 1870s which enabled it to construct a navy that came to dominate the western hemisphere. Canadian policymakers would belatedly see the value of doing business with Washington.

Canada’s potential was shackled by the minimizing impulse. Many of these policies have been discarded, resulting in the diverse, developed, and open Canada we see today. Yet despite its progress, Canada has failed to overcome the minimizing impulse’s most harmful legacy:  its lack of population.

Canada’s current population is 37,740,000. Its lack of people is evident when compared with countries of similar size. China is slightly smaller than Canada, but its population is 1.439 billion. The U.S. is smaller still, but boasts 331,000,000 people. Russia is larger than Canada, and has 146,000,000 people. Canada’s population density is 3.8 people per square kilometre compared with China’s 148.3, the U.S.’s 35.3, and 8.5 in Russia.

These numbers help explain why Canada has never advanced beyond middle power status. The majority of the country doesn’t have the population density to support the economic activity, infrastructure, innovation, and investment required to take the next step. Even its major urban centers Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver pale in size with their global counterparts. This means many immigrants prefer other destinations over Canada, and many of the country’s best and brightest leave to pursue their ambitions abroad. The latter has been a reoccurring theme throughout Canada’ history, with Alexander Graham Bell, James L. Kraft, and Celine Dion among those who left and headed south. As of 2016, the United States was home to some 783,000 Canadians. Little wonder the muted reaction to Trump’s tweet.

Population can also help us predict the country’s future. At its present growth rate, Canada would have fifty million inhabitants by 2100. It will continue aging, with life expectancy rising to 91.6 years by century’s end. A graying society will have profound economic consequences. Spending on health care and pensions will increase as the working population shrinks, necessitating higher taxes or reductions in infrastructure and social spending. Labour shortages will intensify, and slumping productivity will hinder GDP growth. This points to a future where Canada lacks the means to retain its current status, and is supplanted by younger, more dynamic economies such as Mexico, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Having abandoned the minimizing impulse, Canada’s future is linked to its ability to address its most potent legacy. The time is now to develop a strategy that fosters population growth in a planned, organized, and environmentally sustainable manner. Only then can Canada hope to retain its position at the top table of international politics. If things proceed as they are, it’s a question of when not if it’s forced to give up its chair.

Rob Burger


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