Posted on March 13, 2007

Immigration Critical To Canadian Population Growth, Yet Policy Debate Lacking

Bruce Cheadle, Canadian Press, March 13, 2007

Two-thirds of Canada’s population growth over the past five years was fuelled by immigrant newcomers and if that sounds like a lot, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The country is on track to becoming 100 per cent dependent on immigration for growth, suggests data in the latest census snapshop of the country.

Canada saw its native-born populace climb by a modest 400,000 souls between 2001 and 2006. It was the addition of 1.2 million immigrants that helped push the country’s enumerated population total to 31.6 million.

The 2006 census data, released Tuesday by Statistics Canada, shows overall population growth of 5.4 per cent—the highest among the Group of Eight industrialized nations. Canadian growth was up from four per cent in the previous five-year census period, which had been the slowest half-decade in modern Canadian history.

Thank immigration for Canada’s relatively robust growth. An average 240,000 newcomers per year more than compensated for the country’s flat fertility rate.

“It is unique and it’s going to continue,” said Laurent Martel, a Statistics Canada analyst.

“We’re heading towards a point where immigration will be the only source of growth in Canada.”

That point won’t be reached until after 2030, when the peak of the baby boomers born in the 1950s and early ‘60s reach the end of their lifespans.

“You’re going to see an increase in the number of deaths in Canada and the number of deaths will exceed the number of births—so natural increase will become negative,” said Martel.

“The only factor of growth will then be immigration.”

It’s a demographic squeeze facing much of the developed world. Among G8 countries, only the U.S. at 5.0 per cent approaches Canada’s growth rate. France grew 3.1 per cent, Britain 1.9 per cent, Japan near zero and Russia shrank 2.4 per cent over the same five-year period.

The trend lines suggest Canada is well-positioned to weather the demographic storm—providing the country successfully integrates its huge migrant population.

Canada’s net migration, per capita, is among the highest in the world. According to the OECD, Canada’s net migration of 6.5 migrants per 1,000 population between 2000-2004 put it at the head of the international pack. Australia, another immigration juggernaut, accepted 6.2 migrants per 1,000 population during the same period.

Canada’s influx offsets a flacid national birthrate of about 1.5 kids per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 and just below the OECD average.

The United States, by way of example, accepts only 4.4 immigrants per thousand but has a fertility rate 25 per cent higher than Canada.

Given the critical importance, and magnitude, of immigration to Canadian population growth, the relative lack of public policy debate on the issue troubles many observers.

A candidate for the ADQ in the Quebec provincial election was dumped by his party on the weekend after telling a weekly newspaper that native Quebecers need to ‘boost their birth rate, otherwise the ethnics will swamp us.’

Candidate Christian Raymond’s empirical observation on birth rates was not the firing offence; it was his inflammatory followup: “If they don’t want to conform, they can just go back home. I say to them: You’re not at home here, you’re visiting.”

Michael Bloom, a vice-president with the Conference Board of Canada, says Canada’s policy makers need to get their heads around a potentially explosive trend, both economically and socially.

“We have not strategically thought through how we should manage our largest single source of population for net growth,” Bloom said in an interview.

For a country like Canada, founded on and fueled by successive waves of immigration, the political vacuum is curious.

“It is a charged atmosphere,” said Bloom, in which competing interest groups look with suspicion on the motivations of policy makers.

“They’re looking for a challenge almost the moment anybody says anything. I think that’s the environment we have right now. So creating a safe context for discussing the issues without people immediately assuming you have a hidden agenda is the challenge.”

“And I’m not sure how to resolve that challenge.”

But discuss it we must, because as the latest census figures show, the population growth is continuing to reconfigure the country.

Booming Alberta saw its population jump 10.6 per cent from 2001 to 2006—with inter-provincial migrants making up the bulk of the increase.

Ontario’s population, meanwhile, increased 6.6 per cent. Of the 750,000-person increase, roughly 600,000 were immigrant newcomers—half the Canadian total.

British Columbia’s growth of 5.3 per cent was also principally driven by international migration, said Statistics Canada.

Saskatchewan and Newfoundland were once again net population losers, with declines of 1.1 per dent and 1.5 per cent respectively.

Saskatchewan has lost population in each of the last two census periods and is currently back to its 1981 enumerated total of 968,000. Newfoundland, meanwhile, is on a three-census slide and has seen its population fall to a level not seen since the late 1960s.

The Maritime provinces overall showed negligible growth, while Manitoba managed a 2.6 per cent increase based heavily on immigration.

Quebec’s population climbed 4.3 per cent, a healthy immigration-fuelled rebound after a negligible 1.4 per cent in the previous five years. Still, Quebec’s growth was not enough to keep up with the national average and signals another slight decline in the French-speaking province’s overall share of the Canadian population.

With the federal government poised to bring down a budget next Monday that is expected to reconfigure equalization payments to the provinces and address a so-called fiscal imbalance in the federation, population shifts are of critical importance.

The census shows that Toronto remains Canada’s biggest metropolitan area, with 5.1 million people.

Montreal, at 3.6 million, and Vancouver at 2.1, were next among megalopoli.

About 35 per cent of Canada’s total population lives in these three metropolitan regions—and they attract more than 80 per cent of immigrant newcomers. The OECD has found that Canada, relative to its geographic expanse, has the most geographically concentrated population in the world.

Calgary grew by 12.4 per cent from 2001 to 2006, while Edmonton ramped up 9.6 per cent.

In fact, two of CanadaÕs top three fastest growing centres were in Alberta: Okotoks (up 46.7 per cent) and Airdrie (up 41.8 per cent). No other centre, however, rivalled Milton, Ont.Õs seam-busting growth of 71.4 per cent.

The 2006 census marked a significant departure in methodology for Statistics Canada, which employed only about 17,000 field workers to enumerate this time around Ñ down from about 47,000 in 2001.

Online questionnaires—which drew ‘a spectacular’ response rate of about 18 per cent of the total, according to census director general Anil Arora—was one major change.

Statistics Canada also mailed questionnaires to verified household addresses this time, rather than having enumerators deliver them all as in the past.

Arora said the overall response rate was about 97 per cent, which is the historical norm. After the fact, the agency does ‘coverage measurement studies’ on selected samples of the survey to verify accuracy. Typically, these tracing exercises (which won’t be completed until autumn 2008) turn up an under-coverage rate of between two and three per cent, so estimated population totals are rounded up.

That’s why Canada’s estimated current population is actually around 33 million, but the census figure for May 16, 2006, shows 31,612,897 Canadians. The census count reflects only enumerated households.

“It is what it is,” said Arora.

“The census is a baseline. It serves as the starting point.”