press and opinions

Building the Nation - An Alternative View on Immigration

  • / Jun 20, 2013 / by Tom Denton /
  • Annual meeting – Immigrant Services Calgary

    I’ve given some thought to an alternative title. You know the old expression that you can’t have your cake and eat it. I think that just maybe, when it comes to immigration that Canada can have its cake and eat it. It is going to take me a little while to explain. Please bear with me. My goal is to give you lots to think about.

    Thank you for your generous invitation to speak here this evening. I approach my topic with some trepidation since I am conscious that I’m in the heartland of our Prime Minister and our Minister of Immigration. But since I’m old enough to be Mr. Harper’s father and Mr. Kenney’s grandfather, perhaps I will be forgiven for looking at immigration a little differently from what appears to be the current norm.

    I was fresh out of law school when my wife and I moved here from Halifax in 1958. Calgary’s population was 207,000 and that seemed big to me. The tallest building was the Palliser Hotel and that was where we stayed a couple of nights until we found a place to rent, a basement suite out on 37th Street SW in an area then known as “carrot town”.

    When we left for Winnipeg nine years later Calgary’s population had already increased 65 percent. By 2012 your population topped 1,120,000 –a 550 percent increase in the fifty-five years since I first arrived. This is staggering growth!

    But Calgary’s is not the only staggering growth around. Take a look at our planet. Humans, some say, have been around for at least two million years. Demographers estimate that by the time Jesus of Nazareth was born the world population had reached about 500 million. One thousand nine hundred years later, in 1900, the world population had grown to 1.6 billion.

    My mother was born not long after that, in 1908. She’s still around, in her 105th year, and sometimes observes that things aren’t the way they used to be. I explain to her, “Of course they aren’t, and here’s why”. It took us 1900 years of the Common Era to add about one billion people. In only 113 years since then we’ve added more than five billion and grown to 7 billion in total. Things are dramatically different if for no other reason. In just my mother’s lifetime we have quadrupled the human population number that took the planet millions of years to reach. This is the staggering reality of our time.

    Where will it all end? Well, it will end, and relatively quickly too. The planet’s population is expected to peak in the 9 to 11 billion range in the next forty or fifty years, and then decline rapidly. Why?   Two reasons: human frailty and human choice. We don’t live very long on this planet. In 100 years just about everyone alive today will be dead. Without replenishment the human race would disappear. Today in developed countries we are choosing to have fewer and fewer kids.

    Sustaining a population requires a birth rate of 2.1 live births per female. That means every female. Here’s where human choice comes in. Today many women have none and others choose the “perfect” family of two kids. Result? Check the world fertility tables online. In just about every country the birth rate is declining. Bosnia is the lowest at 1.1. Canada sits at 1.6; the US at 1.9.

    At the other end we have Somalia at 6.3, Afghanistan at 6.2. As countries become developed and stable, their birth rate drops. It is interesting that every African country is well above the replacement birth rate except for Botswana and South Africa, arguably the most developed and stable countries on the continent.   But the birth rate in every African country is declining.

    Without immigration the developed countries, as peoples, will eventually disappear. Almost every European country has a birth rate that is well below the population replacement rate and is on the path to extinction. Unless there is a reversal in the low birthrate reality, or unless they embrace immigration by people who are “different”, the European peoples will essentially disappear in 200 years. Do the math. Their lovely geography will of course survive.

    You and I won’t be around to see the results of drastic population decline in this not-so-distant future. I regret that. It will be fascinating. How will we handle it? I was doing some consulting work a few years ago for the Cape Breton Municipality, a region that was losing population at the rate of 1000 people a year from a base just over 100,000. The mayor there told me that he was not so much interested in how to get his region to grow as to how to manage its decline.

    Did you know that 45 percent of the urban centers in Canada are actually losing population while the rest, like Calgary, grow? The losers are largely invisible. The winners are on everyone’s tongue.

    That balance will gradually shift. The little town of Parrsboro that was my mother’s first home after marriage, then had a population exceeding 8,000. Today it has less than 2,000. The coal mines that sustained the region ran out and the town’s railroad line and little harbour became irrelevant. This is a cautionary tale.

    In a few minutes I’ve tried to outline the big-picture demographic trends. How does Canada position itself in the midst of all this? Right now, very conventionally I would say. One might also say “carefully” or “Conservatively” – to which I would hasten to add that there has really been no fundamental change since the Liberal years that preceded the current government. You can go back a couple of generations and still find no fundamental change. We have 35 million people now and, given the status quo, are projected to rise to maybe 42 million by mid century before the decline sets in.

    Conventionality in matters of immigration is not confined to Canada. It appears to be the group-think of the developed countries that are intent upon protecting their borders and letting in only those they need to keep their industries humming.

    It is the great irony of our time that while goods and services flow ever more freely across national boundaries, facilitated by much-desired trade agreements, the cross-border movement of people for purposes other than tourism or education, is more closely regulated than it has ever been in human history. In a globalizing world is this a human rights issue?

    When it comes to human migration, countries like Canada seem to want to be as impregnable as a medieval fortress, ready to raise the drawbridge at any moment and hurl down hot tar on those wanting in. This is a political decision; it may consequentially be a moral one.

    So what drives our immigration strategy? It is really no secret. It is written right into the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of 2002. Canada’s immigration program is a labour market strategy. As it works out, it seeks to maintain a balanced tension between labour market needs, and supply, letting in just enough immigrants to keep our economy growing while keeping a weather eye on unemployment rates. If things are getting a little out of balance, then temporary foreign workers, whether more or fewer, can be used to even things out.

    Not a bad strategy if the goal is a strong and reasonably growing economy that sustains a gently rising population. It may also put us in a good defensive position when the demographic meltdown comes. It is hard to argue against it. I’m not going to. Perhaps it is good – as far as it goes. But does it go far enough? Are there alternative strategies we might think about?

    I’m going to suggest tonight that our immigration strategy could go farther and accomplish other worthwhile goals, grander goals that have more to do with vision, with nation-building, with moving Canada up those World Bank or UN lists that have us at eleventh place in nominal GDP, in 35th place in population, and in 228th place in population density.

    I’m not asking or expecting you to agree with me. I’d simply like to give you something to think about.

    As my mother said, times have really changed; and I would add, so has thinking. When she was born, Sir Wilfrid Laurier was our Prime Minister and he was a visionary. He contemplated a country of 100 million people by the year 2,000 and he set the wheels in motion to get there. We only achieved one third of that. In 1913 when Sir Robert Borden was our Prime Minister and the Canadian population was 7,632,000, we let in 400,000 immigrants. We’ve never achieved that number since.

    Were we to allow in an equivalent number today, that number would be almost two million immigrants a year instead of the now-typical 250,000. The difference is that Canada then was in a visionary and nation-building mode while today we are in nation maintenance mode.

    Maybe nation maintenance is the right mode these days when “sustainability” is the watchword for everything. I submit that it is not. I submit that there is nothing wrong with seeking to build a greater Canada, the kind of country that Laurier and Borden had in mind. I submit that it is not irresponsible; rather it is responsible.

    I submit that Canada does not need to share in the group-think, the hunkering-down mode that restricts population growth and worries about youth unemployment as happens in the small spaces of Western Europe. I submit that we ought not to be content to sit in 228th place for population density, neighbours on the list to Sahara countries and almost at the bottom in the world list of 242.

    I submit that we need to get beyond our “labour market strategy” that reduces everything to dollars and cents, demeans our history, and is essentially mean-spirited.

    No, I am not embarrassed to argue for a greater Canada. Why?

    Because I know we have the capacity and the tools to do the job. We have the space; we have the natural resources; we have the human resources; and as we have already demonstrated to the world, we have a firm and democratic foundation upon which we are building an ethic of tolerance and inclusion that despite continuing challenges is a model for the world.

    But why should we bother? Why shouldn’t we remain in the comfortable niche we have defined for ourselves at 11th place with our GDP and 35th place with our population. Let me suggest some reasons, both pragmatic and moralistic that may, or may not, have value.

    First the pragmatic. Look south. Do you know what’s happening with the US population numbers? While we take comfort in percentages, in absolute numbers every year the US is gaining on us. They have a higher birth rate and they bring in way more immigrants. By mid century they will have achieved a size lead that will be 100 million people greater than it is today. Oh, we’ll still be roughly one ninth or one tenth their size but in absolute numbers they’ll have outgrown us by another 100 million, maybe more. What does this portend for our independence, our sovereignty, our resources like water?

    Then there’s China with its wealth and 37 times our population, or issues around our sovereignty in the Arctic where Russia looks across at us with four times our population and a higher GDP. Doesn’t size matter when we want to protect what we have? I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

    We see it as being important to belong to the G8 where membership is for the wealthy – but our economy only ranks us as 11th. Who’s missing? China whose economy ranks it at #2 and its population at #1; India at #6 with the world’s second biggest population, and Brazil at #9 and with a much smaller population that the other two, but still more than five times ours. There may be other countries in those first 34 places on the population list ahead of us that will begin to surpass us economically too as they develop. There’s only so much you can do with 35-growing-to-42 million people.

    Maybe there’s nothing intrinsically good about being high on these lists. Maybe all is vanity. On the other hand what will slippage down do for our ability to have a positive impact in the world’s councils or to bargain for what we want? With our current ranking we are clinging to our place with our fingernails.

    What about the moralistic stuff? Oh, that’s tougher. Maybe I oughtn’t to go there. It’s the luck of the draw, buddy. Here we are in the best country on the planet – and you over there in Africa, or wherever, are not. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. You think I’m going to share any of this with you? You’ve got to be kidding. Keep out, and if you don’t, well, we’ve got some tough rules my friend that will deal with you. We have our priorities and they don’t include you. I’m going to lay up for myself treasures on earth – and to heck with the moths and the rust.

    Or maybe you have a different opinion. I’d like to hear it. I don’t think I’ve heard it too often. Maybe we canhave our wealth and share it too. That brings me back to my alternative topic: maybe we can have our cake and eat it too.

    My neighbour down the street happens to be the Premier of Manitoba, so occasionally we meet in the grocery store as we’re shopping. Last time this happened he said to me that Manitoba needed more people, a lot more people. Immigrants create jobs, said the Premier. He’s right of course. People are our most important resource. The United Kingdom with a population 75 percent bigger than Canada’s and an area not much more than one-third the size of Alberta, ranks well ahead of us at 7th on the GDP list. It’s not their geography; it’s not their natural resources; it’s their people.

    Canada seems to have forgotten that its most important resource is its people. It’s our people that will lift us to greatness as a nation, but we need more of them to do the lifting. The size of Canada makes it too heavy to lift when we’re spread so thinly, almost the lowest density on the planet.

    I have to mention that today is World Refugee Day. I work with refugees. I sponsor them into Canada but the number allowed in this way is limited by Federal policy to a current maximum of 6,000 per year for all of Canada. I am personally turning down requests to sponsor at the rate of 6,000 a year – no exaggeration. Most have families already here who are desperate to have them get in. But the door is barred to all but a trickle.

    In every category of immigration the door is barred to many. Why? You tell me. Tell me what happened to the vision of Laurier and Borden and others before them. Tell me why we can’t recapture it. Tell me why we perpetuate the narrow, cautious, frugal little “labour market strategy” when we could be building a nation instead. What’s happened to our vision?

    Back in 1979 we had a short-lived Federal government led by Prime Minister Joe Clark. Our TV screens were filled with images of refugees in small boats in the South China Sea, the Boat People of Southeast Asia. It was a colossal human tragedy. The nations of the world were called upon to help. Mr. Clark’s immigration minister was Flora Macdonald. Her staff came to her with a recommendation that Canada should take 5,000 of these refugees. It was a cautious, frugal gesture that seemed prudent-yet-generous, doable. Oh so Canadian! Ms. Macdonald took the proposal to the Clark cabinet but she changed the number to 50,000 – and they went for it. How do I know this? Because Flora told me herself. The rest is history. In a few short years the number grew to over 60,000 and the UN awarded the People of Canada the Nansen Medal, the first and only time it went to an entire people. I remember this, and you can too, every time you look at a “Twoonie”. It was designed by a Vietnamese refugee.

    Whether or not you can tell me what happened to our vision, I will tell you that with a much expanded immigration program, the kind for which we know the demand is already there, we will be building the nation. We will accomplish the goals of the labour market strategy, but we will also be able to breath into the program some expansive generosity such that families can be reunited, more refugees can be rescued, provinces now restricted can get the immigrants they want, the economy will grow because as Premier Selinger said, “Immigrants create jobs,” and Canada in every way will become a greater country.

    That’s the alternative view I’d like to see replace what’s happening now. We can generously share what we have with millions more, more than eighty percent of whom, if the past is replicated, will be related to someone already here, and we can build a greater nation that will benefit us all. Or to put it more crassly, that’s how we can have our cake and eat it.

    The drawbridge to our medieval castle is already down. We need and welcome immigrants now. We know it and we do it. So far, so good. It’s the portcullis that’s the problem. It’s only been raised a little bit, forcing people to squeeze under slowly and with difficulty. Let’s raise it.

    Tom Denton is the executive director for refugee sponsorship at Hospitality House Refugee Ministry.