At a time when countries around the world are closing their borders, a group founded by some of the most influential business leaders in the country — including some with the ear of the prime minister — says Canada needs to triple its population in the next 80 years.
In a report released Thursday, the Century Initiative recommends Canada work to become a nation of 100 million by 2100, calling for a significant increase in immigration targets along with a program to educate Canadians about immigration’s benefits, and the creation of population-dense “mega-regions.”
The organization was established in 2016 by six Canadian executives, including Dominic Barton, then-managing director of consulting giant McKinsey & Company, and Mark Wiseman, global head of active equities at investment firm BlackRock. Both were members of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, and Barton was recently appointed Canada’s ambassador to China.
The Century Initiative says the measures are needed to prevent an economic slowdown caused by labour shortages, an aging population and technological change. “Scale matters,” said Jasmine Gill, the group’s director of policy and programs. But public support for increased immigration levels is low, and finding enough people to meet the organization’s targets is set to get more difficult as the countries that are currently the source of many of Canada’s newcomers offer more domestic opportunities as their economies grow.
With a population of 100 million, Canada would have potential annual economic growth of 2.6 per cent in 2100, “a full percentage point higher than if we maintain our current course,” the report claims.
The organization recommends the federal government continue to increase the number of new immigrants it admits each year, from the 2019 target of 330,800 to 475,000 in 2025. It wants Ottawa to then peg the rate to 1.25 per cent of the population.
The organization’s recommended numbers aren’t historically high — Canada brought in over 400,000 immigrants in 1913, more than five per cent of the existing citizenry, according to the report.
The Century Initiative’s recommendations
1. Set targets to begin increasing immigration immediately: Bring in 400,000 permanent residents in 2022, rising to 475,000 in 2025. From 2026 onward, admit permanent residents equivalent to 1.25 per cent of the population each year.
2. Increase early childhood support for Canadians who want bigger families: Expand parental leave benefits as well as access to child care.
3. Leverage under-represented talent in the labour force: Increase the participation rates of Indigenous Peoples and those with disabilities to the national average via employment equity practices. Increase the participation rate for women to that of men via more flexible jobs and a national child-care strategy. Increase the participation rate for older workers via employment matching programs and financial incentives that preserve their pensions.
4. Build the infrastructure to accommodate a bigger Canada: Create a 50-year national plan and reconsider the roles of the different levels of government in funding and building projects.
5. Develop greater density in mega-regions: Encourage population density via land use, infrastructure and economic development policies.
6. Look to expand in the near and far North: Conduct a national conversation including Indigenous nations about increasing population in the North.
7. Invest in a globally ranked education system that can be a magnet for top talent: Develop post-secondary institutions into “centres of excellence.” Create a “clear and easy path to citizenship” for international students.
8. Attract and develop talent with the skills for the digital age: Fund training, make broader work experience opportunities available and clearly communicate the skills necessary for specific jobs.
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9. Scale innovation and entrepreneurship: Maintain a talent pool and access to capital. Develop “world-class Canadian superclusters.” Revise regulations to “favour Canadian economic success.”
10. Educate Canadians about the economic case for immigration: Create a national advisory body to give recommendations on immigration reform, economic growth, development and infrastructure.
Source: The Century Initiative
“A higher population is likely to lead to higher underlying potential in the economy,” said Brett House, Scotiabank’s deputy chief economist, although he did not endorse the Century Initiative’s specific figures. How fully Canada realizes that potential would depend on how well the country integrates the new arrivals, he said, noting that non-native-born Canadians do better on health, education and home ownership measures than immigrants in other OECD countries.
A dramatic increase in population across the country would put pressure on governments to make sure people have access to social supports, including health care, schools and housing—particularly in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where most immigrants settle. “Ensuring that more people lead to higher underlying potential growth really starts becoming contingent … on putting into place the infrastructure and services [for] a much bigger population,” House said.
Not every government is likely to be on board. In December 2018, Quebec Premier François Legault’s government enacted plans to reduce the province’s immigration intake by as much as 20 per cent for this year. The Century Initiative report addresses Quebec’s situation specifically, acknowledging the province has the right to set its own targets, but arguing it “will need to take in far more immigrants if it wishes to maintain its historic share of the population.”
The report recommends governments and industry make it a priority to educate the public on the value of immigration. That may prove an uphill battle: in an October Angus Reid Institute poll, 39 per cent of respondents thought Canada’s current immigration levels were about right, while only 13 per cent thought the number should be higher.
The Century Initiative report anticipates that a 100-million-person Canada would be more heavily urbanized than today, using the term “mega-regions” to describe areas with multiple city centres that encompass at least five million people and $100 billion in annual GDP. It estimates the Toronto mega-region would include more than a third of the national population, up from about a quarter in 2016. The Vancouver area would also grow significantly, from 3.3 million to 11.9 million, while the Calgary-Edmonton corridor would jump the most, from 2.8 million to 15.5 million.
Dense mega-regions like these could create “innovation clusters that would facilitate job growth,” Gill said.
A larger domestic consumer market could help more Canadian businesses scale up and compete internationally, according to the report. Continued immigration—along with the new emphasis on digital skills training the Century Initiative recommends—will also create a larger workforce for those firms. “In order to really grow these innovative and entrepreneurial companies, they need access to talent,” said Gill, adding that a large workforce also helps firms “attract the investment to enable access to global markets.”
However, House pointed out that while consumer-oriented companies benefit from large local markets, plenty of big firms come from small markets. “It’s not clear to me the tech sector requires a large local market,” House said, adding that the quality of the labour pool is more important.
Even if governments and the public support the Century Initiative’s proposals, finding enough immigrants to hit its targets is set to get more challenging. Population growth in Canada’s principal sources of immigrants—India, the Philippines and China were top in 2017—is slowing, and economic growth is creating more domestic opportunities for skilled workers, according to House. He also does not expect the U.S. to remain permanently unwelcoming to newcomers.
Those trends mean that if Canada hopes to continue to benefit from the arrival of newcomers, it needs to “start pressing the gas on immigration sooner rather than later,” said House. “It’s going to become a tougher and tougher marketplace for immigrants.”