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Neil Cameron
Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Liberal Nationalism and Demographic Realism

Doug Saunders and David K. Foot

Globe & Mail international affairs journalist Doug Saunders has just published a book intended to influence public policy, Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians is Not Enough (Knopf, 2017). Having already written a not entirely convincing refutation of the Europe-focused alarmism of writers like Mark Steyn about the impact of mass Muslim migration, Saunders this time concentrates on Canada, more on is its reception of new people of all backgrounds than about their composition. It presently looks fairly likely that Canada may slowly acquire several tens of millions of additional population over the coming century, just plugging along with roughly present immigration practices and domestic birth rates, but Saunders wants to see a more rapid and consistent growth policy, moving the country to 100 million as rapidly as possible. He offers empirical and theoretical arguments in support.

Most of the pros and cons of adapting such a course could be made in a few pages, but Saunders expands on the pros with two themes. The first is a selective history of the ‘failing’ quality of government policies from the 19th to the mid-20th century, nearly all years marked by large emigration, sometimes as substantial as the scale of new arrivals, with slow net domestic growth. The second is to portray even the more recent rapidly growing populations of the three or four largest Canadian cities as actually insufficient to provide the internal markets and domestic tax bases to maintain adequate services, thus making it very difficult, for example, for these cities to introduce much of the high-tech rapid public transport found in many large cities elsewhere.

Saunders is a much better writer than his enthusiastic policy wonk supporter Irvin Studin, whose G&M review of Maximum Canada is a model of fatuous reasoning and bad prose (‘The minimizing impulse privileges a conception of a largely rural Canada anchored essentially in Britishness…racial whiteness and a strictly defensive trading posture…), but is myopic in much the same way. He would like to see annual immigration rise to at least 450,000 per year, about 50% higher than present levels, and higher than any time in previous history, only the last years of the 1900-1913 attempt to ‘fill up the West’ coming close. This expansion may strongly appeal to Justin Trudeau, already having made his come-one-come-all appeal to the world. Serious criticism of the book may have difficulty getting a real hearing; it is one of these many ‘futurist’ books that have their influence not so much by actually being read as merely introducing buzzword concepts to be taken up by politicians, government bureaucrats and corporate executives, moving constantly from Two Cultures, Future Shocks, Searches for Excellence, and Population Bombs. Like nearly all such books, Maximum Canada is more instructive for what it excludes or minimizes than for its explicit content.

The Saunders ‘historical review’ is not just selective, but cast almost entirely in terms of his present preoccupations. It is quite true, for example, that all kinds of purposes intended by Canadian governments from the time of MacDonald to Mackenzie King ‘failed’, but it could just as well be demonstrated that for all national governments in the last 150 years, countless major policies based on future expectations have been failures, because so many of the expectations simply turned out to be entirely wrong, as could just as well be true for those of Saunders or Trudeau. The grander the expectations, the more disastrous the failures. Worldwide, at least to WW I, political imperialism and colonialism appeared, even to most of their contemporary critics, to be part of a lasting order of things, accepted by mass populations as well as governing elites, including those of republican France and America. And even industrial and technological revolutionaries like Carnegie and Ford did not initially realize how rapidly mechanization would not only transform urban life, but reduce the numerical demand for farmers.

As well, fundamental assumptions about what was likely and desirable in sexual morality, marriage, reproduction, and entrance into working life, were undermined or obliterated by the social effects of two World Wars, the interwar World Depression and the post-1945 Cold War. The scale, nature, and long-term impact of both Canadian and American immigration not only has to be understood in terms of the almost wide-open variety on both sides of the border from the late 19th century to World War I, but of the political cultural, and demographic reasons, both good and bad, for the decades of restriction and preferential criteria applied in both countries from the 1920s to the 1960s. As well, Canadian domestic policies, while successive federal governments managed workable compromises between English- and French-speaking Canada, and between East, Centre, and West, outside wartime these compromises tended to block ambitious revisions of all-Canada public policies in general, immigration included.

The sum of all these factors in explaining what Canada is like today makes pointing out that the immigration policies of a century ago ‘failed’ in seeking mainly farmers, and showing that even about seven out of ten people brought in with that intent ended up in urban occupations, is not much more meaningful than deploring the inadequacies of the interwar Canadian armed forces, or attacking politicians of the first half of the century for not anticipating the consequences that followed the post-1960 collapse of the once reliably astronomical French Canadian birth rates. Confident futurists of the 1930s used to argue that Canada would be majority French-speaking by the end of the 20th century; Arnold Toynbee suggested that ‘at the end of history’, only the Chinese and the French Canadians would remain..

Saunders could still respond that democratic governments are compelled to apply some un-provable assumptions to deal with the future as best they can, and he does draw attention to the way demographic factors already evident – like overall ageing population – are bound to press on policy and spending – like rising medicare costs. But that kind of analysis is better provided in the articles, books, and public addresses of the University of Toronto demographer-economist, David K. Foot.

Foot, an iconoclastic former Australian with a Harvard Ph.D., made his academic mark in the early 1980s with a remarkably prescient monograph, Canada’s Population Outlook. A little over a decade later, he brought out the popular bestseller, Boom, Bust, and Echo, and has been widely read and quoted ever since. Winning awards for effective undergraduate teaching, he has also made an additional career advising corporations and business and professional groups. Interested students today can find a quick introduction of what he has to say in several YouTube videos, especially an entertaining address he gave to the Canadian Nuclear Association earlier in this decade. Making constant use of horizontal bar graphs of age distributions, Foot is in that sense even narrower in focus than Saunders; he likes to say that demography ‘explains 2/3 of everything’. But he is less irritating, because he is candid about all the factors on which he is ignorant or uncertain, concentrating on tracking and assessing birth and death rates over decades, and staying with prosaic assumptions about about the behaviour of the young, the old, the married, the arriving and leaving. Government committees created to report on various social problems do not welcome his advice, likely to be that either the problem will soon disappear without assistance or is irremediably insoluble. He doesn’t claim infallibility, but offers more wisdom than Saunders or our current Prime Minister, as blindly ideological in their pursuit of maximum diversity and maximum growth as the past colonialists they now scorn.