Facing A Future With Fewer People

MICHAEL ROSE August 24 1987

Facing A Future With Fewer People

MICHAEL ROSE August 24 1987

Facing A Future With Fewer People


“Our immigration policy should be devised in a positive sense, with the definite objective of enlarging the population of the country. ”

—Mackenzie King, May, 191+7

In the current furore over the growing number of illegal immigrants arriving on Canadian shores, a prime minister who echoed Mackenzie

King’s unequivocal postwar call for more immigration would certainly be taking a considerable political risk. But while the controversy over refugees rages in Parliament and across the country, a quieter debate is under way among politicians and academics on a potentially more explosive issue. The problem: unless swift action is taken, Canada faces the chilling prospect of a rapidly declining and aging

population, too small and too old to maintain its current standard of living through the next century. For many, the answer is simple—a substantial increase in the number of immigrants allowed into the country each year.

Not everyone agrees with that solution. Some experts argue instead for programs to stimulate Canada’s sagging birthrate. Others warn that there

will not be enough jobs for the new arrivals, and that opening the doors to a flood of nonwhite immigrants would increase racial tensions. Over the years successive federal governments have used a socalled “tap on/tap off” approach: temporarily opening the doors wide to newcomers, and then all but slamming the doors shut when social or political problems surfaced. Immigration levels fluctuated accordingly—from a high of 223,000 in 1967 to a low of 86,000 in 1978. But now demographic experts contend that Ottawa urgently needs a consistent and longterm population strategy for the country, one not based on short-term political considerations.

Alarming: The demographic statistics are alarming. Canada’s population—25,354,064 according to the 1986 census—has been growing at slightly more than four per cent annually since 1981. With current levels of immigration

and Canada’s low fertility rate of 1.6 births per woman—well below the rate of 2.1 births needed to maintain populations at steady levels—experts predict that the population will begin to decline by about the year 2025, after reaching a high of approximately 30 million. And that decline, many experts say, would mean dramatically slower economic growth.

Other observers warn of profound

consequences for Canada’s cultural and political sovereignty if its population falls in proportion to that of the United States. Declared Carleton University political scientist Elliot Tepper: “All those people who say Canada should pay more attention to cultural sovereignty and political sovereignty in the free trade talks have ignored what we’re doing to ourselves by having a lower-than-replacement birthrate.” Equally troubling: Canadians over the age of 65 will likely comprise one-quarter of the population by about the same year, up sharply from 10 per cent in 1985. Said Tepper: “Fewer and fewer younger people are going to have to do the productive labor to pay the

social support costs for an increasing proportion of the aged.”

At the same time, there are few signs that Canada and other Western nations will be able to reverse the trend toward lower birthrates. Campaigns in countries such as France to encourage couples to have more children have had little effect. In part, says McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld, this failure can be explained by resistance among women to reassuming a traditional role as childbearers. Declared Weinfeld: “The fertility strategy is impractical, mainly as a result of the women’s movement and the transformation of our society as a result of that.” Demographers have concluded that, if the birthrate remains low, there is no alternative to increased immigration levels to

defer the coming decline in population.

The federal government has clearly recognized that fact, but appears reluctant to take the decisive steps required. In a 1986 annual report to Parliament on future immigration levels, which set a target of 115,000 to

125.000 newcomers for 1987, immigration department officials wrote, “It is vital that valuable time not be lost before the onset of projected population decline.” Demographers and multicultural groups have urged levels of

200.000 to 250,000 or more immigrants annually by the end of the 1980s, but the government has not committed itself to such high levels.

Officials are now preparing new im-

migration levels for the 1988-1990 period. But it is expected that the 1988 figure—to be approved by cabinet and announced at the end of October—will be no more than 150,000 to 175,000. Indeed, the immigration department’s policy development director, Chris Taylor, said last week that accepting numbers substantially higher than 200,000 a year could overtax the country’s capacity to integrate new arrivals.

Changes: Major changes in policy are unlikely before the end of 1989, when a three-year demographic study commissioned by the health and welfare department is to be completed. The $2.4million study is designed to answer fundamental questions about the long-term implications of changes in the size and makeup of Canada’s population—including the effect of immigration on ecoI

nomic growth and how higher immigration levels would change the ethnic character of the country.

Backlash: Already, some government officials and academics are voicing concern about a possible racial backlash if dramatically higher numbers of nonwhite immigrants are allowed into the country. In April a Gallup poll showed that only 13 per cent of Canadians favored increased immigration levels, while 83 per cent favored reducing them or leaving them as they are. Said McGill’s Weinfeld: “It’s not so much that politicians are racist—but there is the fear of racism, that the Canadian public may be racist.” Indeed, the report of the 1985 royal commission on the

economy headed by former finance minister Donald Macdonald called the changing race relations that have resulted from increased immigration “potentially explosive.”

Still, Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard told the House of Commons on Aug. 11 that the government remains committed to “steady growth” in immigration levels. And the minister rejected suggestions that voters would not accept substantially increased numbers of newcomers. Insisted Bouchard: “I think Canadians will understand that immigration has to be increased.” In light of Canada’s need for more people, the response to Bouchard’s challenge may have profound implications for the future of the country.