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Canada – Population 100 Million

Spring / Summer 2010 Features

Canada – Population 100 Million

plutocrats At 100 million people, three times its current population, Canada is among the most consequential countries on Earth

Canada should be a country of 100 million people. It has been said before. Apocryphally, by Winston Churchill himself; more recently, by the countless immigrants, newcomers and visitors to the country who are able, it must be observed, to see in Canada what incumbent Canadians oftentimes do not: that Canada could be a proper world power – a country of global consequence – if only…

Canada’s first francophone prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, was likely tapping into this hypothetical when, in the early 20th century, he declared that the century would be Canada’s. That never happened, for reasons we are about to cite, but that optimistic impression of the Great White North has endured in certain quarters: at the end of the Cold War, for instance, certain Chinese measures of ‘comprehensive national power’ rated Canada as among the seven most powerful countries in the world. And in a 2007 speech in Calgary, Tony Blair easily declared that “Canada will become one of the most powerful nations in the world.” The several other similar such insights into Canada’s potential power are almost universally of foreign provenance.

To be sure, what is at issue here is ‘strategic power’ – the capacity of a country to shape international outcomes and to move other parties (state, non-state) to do something that they would otherwise not have done. Just as importantly, this strategic power (‘hard’ and ‘soft’ alike) is typically deployed with intent; that is, it requires deliberate moves – deployment of assets and capabilities – on the part of government and society to make things happen. In the absence of such intent and deployment, a country either does not exert strategic power (or has power exerted on it by other parties) or, at best, aims or hopes, passively, to serve as an ‘example’ or ‘model’ to foreign parties through the proper and competent administration of its domestic affairs.

At 34 million people, Canada today finds itself living the latter two realities. Canadians largely fancy themselves citizens either of a ‘small’ or, at most, a ‘middle’ or ‘principled’ power. There is little state or collective ambition to use strategic levers to be a player of any consequence in international affairs, and even less national cognizance that, with the requisite political acumen and chutzpah, the levers of strategic power available to Canada to be a driving force in the grand anarchy of international affairs are very considerable. A justified national self-confidence does reign, however, in the capacity of Canada to lead the world – or to be among the world’s leaders – in largely internal matters of federalism, human rights and the integration of the outsider – immigrants, of which Canada, on a per-capita basis, takes in the most in the world – into the national fold. And while Canada may on occasion serve to other countries as a gold standard of strong domestic governance, its patent weakness lies in its incapacity, and general national disinclination, to actually export (with intent, or purpose) this model or any associated Canadian instruments of influence.

There are good reasons for the domestic gravity that so predominates in Canada. The country, constituted in its modern form in 1867, was created as a ‘strategic annex’ of the British Empire. Strategy, in other words – including management of the then-important American expansionist threat – was to be the province of Whitehall, while matters ‘domestic’ and otherwise ‘astrategic’ were properly Canada’s to manage. This basic inward-looking Canadian ‘culture’ arguably endured unvitiated until at least WW2, when Canada’ declaration of war on Germany was differentiable (by a day, it must be said) from that of the UK. After that war, this essential gravity was reversed only sporadically by the force of world events foisted on Canada – the Korean war (still not over, evidently), the Suez Crisis and the general framework of the Cold War – only to be decisively reasserted time and again by internal social-democratic debates about the size of the national welfare state, Quebec’s distinctive place in the federation, distribution of national wealth among the country’s variegated regions, the creation of a constitutionalized Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the transition from a binational political polity to a de facto multiethnic one still struggling to coherently explain and accommodate its Aboriginal footprint (indeed, hundreds of such footprints).

The essential domestic gravity of Canada was, for the entire last century, buttressed by a basic truth: Canada was among the luckiest countries in the world. Canadians knew private tragedy, but, with some notable exceptions, Canada as a political whole knew precious few public tragedies. For all intents and purposes, with the possible exemption of Australia (given the Japanese aerial bombings of Darwin and northern Queensland, and coastal submarine attacks during WW2), continental North America was the lone continent to have not known any major warfare – or, more precisely, any major land warfare; land warfare being the most devastating and destabilizing of all – in all of the last century. This is an exceptional strategic fact – one that is unlikely to be repeated in this new century.

Since the 1871 Treaty of Washington, when Canada and the US settled their intermittent armed border skirmishes (themselves antedated by several bloody wars), Canada has effectively been a massive peninsular state, surrounded by three separate oceans, and protected (symbolically and by formal alliance) at its southern flank by a friendly neighbour that happened to be the country that, to Laurier’s chagrin, was to veritably own the 20th century. Stable borders (how many countries had stable borders in the 20th century?) and the absence of war on the home front together made for a happy, peaceable constitutional kingdom; one that, not having been created in the first place to worry about world affairs, did not – privileging instead the creation of a prosperous, sophisticated welfare state (pound-for-pound, perhaps, the most intricate federation in the world). And the administration of this state would fall to generations of senior mandarins and politicians who would become extremely skilled and elegant in erecting, levering, preserving and justifying an ever complex governmental machinery that juggled the heavy (domestic) centrifugal forces operating on the federal centre. However, with few exceptions, this governing class did not instinctually think about world affairs or, more importantly, about world affairs as an arena in which Canada would perform (or had to perform, or could legitimately perform) with effect. There having been no external existential threat to the national project, world affairs, apart from the perfunctory and the sui generis (WW1, WW2, Korea), were mostly discretionary.

Discretion meant that concrete ‘investments’ in the key assets of strategic influence were, as a general rule, not made in Canada. We refer here not just to military, diplomatic and intelligence assets (Canada, tellingly, has no human foreign intelligence service), but also, perhaps more fundamentally, to the building blocks of ‘strategic culture’: languages (Canada is, for entirely domestic reasons, stuck in English-French bilingual mode; rising powers are mastering three or four or more tongues); literature; education; think tanks; indeed, all of the ‘cultural’ assets required to properly support the state if it ever wishes to, or must, act purposefully in international affairs. And we refer also to one of the most fundamental elements of strategic power – population.

As mentioned, Canadians have historically conceived, and to this day often continue to conceive, of their country as ‘small.’ The said domestic gravity drives this self-appraisal, but it is also doubtless supplemented by Canadians’ historical (psychic, self-conscious) self-juxtaposition first with the British colonial master, and later with the much closer US. In short, according to the dominant Canadian narrative, at 309 million people, the US is today big, meaning that, at 34 million, Canada is small, tout court. (Never mind, for the moment, that a different kind of juxtaposition – say, with European powers like France or today’s UK, each only roughly twice as populous as Canada – yields a far less self-abnegating assessment; to the proverbial outsider, at least.)

To this notion of ‘smallness,’ the outsider, as we noted at the outset, retorts: “What smallness? Canada could be a country of 100 million. Its territory is huge – second only to that of the Russians; it has hyper-abundant natural resources; it is rich in indigenous fresh water and food sources; it has (natural) borders to protect it (and, since 1871, no ‘natural’ enemies); it has stable governance; and, to be sure, it is exceedingly underpopulated; that is, strategically speaking, it is well below carrying capacity.”

It stands to reason that Canadians and the Canadian state have seldom seen population or demographics in strategic terms; that is, they are wholly insensitive to the idea of growing the national population in order to directly increase Canadian impact in international affairs. Many have forgotten that much of the original populating motive of the federal government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a clear sovereignty motive (yes, a strategic motive) vis-à-vis potential American encroachment into Canadian territory (particularly in the West). That strategic logic was almost inexorably, and with great rapidity, subordinated to a modern economic rationality – ever dominant today – that holds that Canadian population growth should be a function principally – if not exclusively – of the national need for new labour; specifically, in this early 21st century, new labour to replenish an ageing work force. Domestic considerations, and only domestic considerations, win the day.

That a far larger national population could give Canada greater weight in international affairs is – to the bemusement of many cold-blooded external analysts of the country – nary a line of reasoning that enters the national imagination. Regarded as radically absurd on the economic logic (for where are the jobs?), it may be regarded as wholly irresponsible and reckless on the social logic (for how is a country to absorb or integrate immigration waves that, over time, outstrip even the total current incumbent population)?

A national population of 100 million – three times the current Canadian population – is a symbolic quantum. It could very well be 85 million or 130 million and yield the same desired effects. And these effects would be pincer-like: first, a far larger demographic base to build strong national institutions and structures (east-west-north-south) across the vast territory of Canada – institutions that, while today often absent or weak, would eventually serve as a bulwark for international strategic influence; and second, a far larger talent pool to populate the strategic arms of the Canadian state – the military, diplomatic, general civil service and political branches of government – as well as connected sectors and organizations (business, cultural, educational, scientific) in Canadian society at large. In the process, the Canada of 100 million, through the force of new domestic structures, coupled with growing international impact (and prestige), undergoes an evolution of the national geist – one arguably appropriate for this new, more complicated, more international century. In short, Canada becomes a serious force to be reckoned with.

Let us stress that the Canada of 100 million goes a long way toward addressing one of the capital challenges of Canadian governance: the difficulty, dating from the days of the Fathers of Confederation in 1867, of building east to west, or west to east (and north, of course), across the country’s vast geography. (At 34 million, Canada is easily in the lowest decile among all countries for population density.) The Canada of 100 million has a far larger national market and the attendant economies of scale and scope – for ideas, for debate, for books, for newspapers, for magazines (print and online), for all species of goods and services. It poses a far more impressive cultural counterweight to the US – now only three or four times larger, instead of ten or eleven times. It has many large, dynamic, global cities – more than just Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, or perhaps even Calgary – that, superior division of labour oblige, serve as incubators and competitive arenas for innovation, productivity and creative ambition – all derivatives, as it were, of humans rubbing up against humans. Provided that there is proactive distribution of this increased population (the province principally of the federal government, and an area in which it is currently underperforming) – meaning more people and larger cities everywhere, but particularly in the Maritimes (the East), the Prairies (the Midwest) and, indeed, the Canadian North, all grossly underpopulated regions – the Canada of 100 million also has increased, highly productive inter-civic rivalry between these complex metropolises, and more social and economic experimentation and invention at the local level (sub-state units as laboratories, as it were) to drive overall national performance. There are sufficient numbers across the country to populate large applied research institutions (partisan and non-partisan) to aid the generation of policy ideas; to create bona fide national institutions of higher culture in the musical, visual and theatrical arts; to justify national sports leagues where today, in Canada, there is, to many outside observers’ surprise, perhaps one at most. At 100 million, Canada has cutting-edge, world-beating companies that are far larger and more numerous across the sectors; and, to be sure, it has far more aggregate wealth – profit-seeking and philanthropic alike – to regularly provide the said institutions and structures with liquidity; this, manifestly, on top of the public liquidity that over time comes with a far more substantial tax base. In short, at 100 million, the internal energy of Canadian society is transformed.

At the same time, as mentioned, at 100 million, Canadian society is far more able to support and populate the various factors of power and exportable strategic instruments that are at the ‘coal face’ of international influence. Whereas the Canadian Forces of today number just under 60,000 men and women, the equivalent, very modest proportion of population in uniform on an aggregate population of 100 million would mean some 200,000 Canadian Forces – to wit, total armed forces that are larger than those of today’s UK, and almost as large as those of today’s France. (To be fair, total effectives of around 300,000 would not be much of a stretch either, if Canada, say, used as a guide Australia’s current proportion of population in uniform.) The country’s diplomatic force, drawing on a far broader and more dynamic national talent pool (quite plainly, there are many more Lester Pearsons – Nobel Peace Prize winners and international virtuosos – in a pool of 100 million than in one of 34 million), would be more significant and formidable as well, with sufficient numbers to justify deep and sustained division of labour and coverage of key countries. And, perhaps most signally, the increased national wealth (and tax base) would allow Canada to mobilize very significant quanta of money in order to properly lead in international interventions – non-military and military alike; through carrot and stick, in development, intelligence, reconstruction, war and peacemaking – wherever and whenever, of course, there was a national political will to do so.

Just as 100 million provides a more serious national bulwark on which to build national assets of influence abroad, so too does the very advent of such influence redound to the transformation of the national culture. Greater demographic energy (underpinned by robust national institutions) feeds international performance; and success internationally, in turn, slowly transforms the national psyche. The ‘iron cage’ of the colonial past dissipates…

Even without an aggressive national push to populate the land, UN population projections point to a Canada of some 44 to 50 million people by the year 2050, respectively on the medium and high variants of demographic growth. (This gets us half of the way to the symbolic 100 million of Churchill’s strategic imagination.) At historic rates of population doubling in Canada – Canada’s population has roughly doubled every 40 or so years since 1867 – the country could arguably make a concerted policy push to top the 60 million population mark by the year 2050. Baby bonuses aside, this would presumably mean increasing its annual intake of immigrants (currently around 260,000 per annum) by some 20 to 30 percent. At historic rates of population tripling in Canada – Canada’s population has roughly tripled every 65 or so years – the country could arguably make a policy push to reach the 100 million mark within a few generations; again, largely through the lever of increased – although not radically increased – immigration.

If the impulse for deliberate and significant population increase in Canada does not issue from one of a national sense of strategic opportunity or even obligation (born of good fortune) to ‘do things in the world,’ then it could well come from the following basic proposition: The world of the 21st century will, in all probability, not be as kind, in strategic terms, to Canada as it was in the last century. Where there was negligible warfare in North America in the 20th century (as compared with the far bloodier 19th,18th and 17th centuries on the continent), the tremendous pace of new-century technological innovation in matters military suggests that both the US and Canada, if ensnared in a war with a serious country (developed or underdeveloped alike), will be hard-pressed to escape some description of attack (by air, sea and even land; through cyber-warfare, terrorism or intercontinental missiles) on the home front. The prospect of such renewed warfare at some point in this ‘post-American’ century on territory that has not seen it for some time, and for populations that are therefore reasonably virginal in this regard, focusses the mind. To be sure, the seasonal melting of Arctic ice on Canada’s northern borders – to take just one possible new-century strategic theatre – will for the first time in the country’s modern history make it vulnerable to encroachments, assaults and indeed competitive claims on what it has historically considered – in psychic terms, at least – an impregnable realm, both on land and sea. And given the resource and general economic stakes at play, some species of interstate warfare on Canada’s Arctic frontier is far from inconceivable. Unstable borders have a habit of moulding strategic cultures.

The reversal of the erstwhile immunization of Canada from many of the world’s geopolitical ills will give way to more sustained historical dynamics that will organically cause, and indeed require, the country to properly revisit its weak strategic culture; and, just as importantly, to calibrate its strategic assets for meaningful assertion of its national interests. In the context of the Arctic, for instance, defence of territorial sovereignty, economic opportunity and environmental or ecological heritage (the latter, say, against environmental disasters, à la British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, brought about by foreign players) are clearly some of those key national interests. Of course, national interests (and national projects internationally) are context-specific, whereas we are here first and foremost concerned with the means (themselves less context-specific) that should help Canada pursue its ends (interest, projects) in various international contexts, from outright war to peace-brokering, to disaster or humanitarian relief, to the total transformation of less advantaged foreign societies. In this sense, population (population size) is perhaps the most potent of the means – the factors of strategic power, as it were – that can alter a country’s overall impact in international affairs. This is because population size in many cases drives or informs the other major (‘objective’) means or factors of strategic power – in particular, the size of a country’s economy and of its military and diplomatic forces. And given that Canada is peculiarly strong in the factors of power that are independent of population size – to wit, geography (territorial size, borders), natural resources and even quality of government (itself, granted, somewhat related to population size) – we might argue that population is the key factor of power in which Canada is weakest or most susceptible to strategic improvement. In other words, grow the population variable significantly, and watch the overall strategic power of the country multiply.

Other things being equal, of course… There is little doubt that population increases of the size suggested would create certain non-negligible integration and cohesion challenges for Canadian society – both nationally and regionally, and particularly in regions with less history of immigrant intake. There would naturally be a burden on the public purse, federally and provincially – in the early days, before the newcomers ‘hit their stride,’ as it were – to promote this integration, in its various forms; and then to help drive the creation of the national institutions that may convert this new demographic energy into national vitality and international influence. There is also little doubt that such population increases would cause some political angst in Quebec to the extent that the changed demographic mass undercuts, or is perceived to be undercutting, the effective weight of the French fact in Canada. These and the other major domestic hurdles to reaching a Canadian population of 100 million will tax the national creativity. But then again, Canada has, over the course of its history, been among the most constitutionally innovative polities on Earth. Without being naive about the scale of the task, we might easily recognize that the precedential roots to success are to be found in the very Canadian ‘culture’ that is, in the process of achieving this success, being transformed and modernized. At 100 million, this is, as we have said, among the most powerful and important countries in the world. And the world will take good note.


Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Global Brief.

(Illustration: Louis Fishauf)

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