Doug Saunders's Maximum Canada adds up the costs of underpopulation

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      Author and journalist Doug Saunders likes bringing forth big ideas backed up by data and scholarly research. This was apparent in his first two titles, Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World and The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? And there are plenty of big ideas in his third and perhaps most ambitious book, Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough, which makes the case that the country’s small population didn’t happen by accident.

      In Maximum Canada Saunders posits that from the War of 1812 to the end of the Second World War, there was a “minimizing impulse” advanced by the country’s leaders to ensure that Canada remained largely rural, agricultural, and focused on providing resources to Great Britain, even if the mother country didn’t really want or need them. According to Saunders, this came at a tremendous economic, social, and cultural cost.

      “The immigration agents employed under Macdonald, under Laurier, under Borden, under Mac­kenzie King were all instructed that if people were urban or they had educations or they had trades or they had ambitions to start businesses, they should be rejected,” Saunders says on the line from Toronto. “They should be encouraged to go to the United States instead. We only wanted farmers.”

      It turned out that many of those “farmers” ended up moving to the city and starting businesses. And that resulted in Canada having an urban, industrial economy by the first decade of the 20th century. But according to Saunders, the country pretended that this wasn’t the case until the 1950s, maintaining the myth of Canada as a largely agrarian and natural-resources-oriented nation. And because of high tariffs on goods imported from the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was more expensive to start businesses in Canada than south of the border.

      “Our policy discouraged people from going into business and employing people,” Saunders states. “There were very few markets for the stuff you produced because of that.”

      This led the more entrepreneurially minded to move south. He writes that between 1851 and 1941, there were 6.7 million immigrants who moved to Canada. But over the same period, almost 6.3 million emigrated. This meant an annual net population intake of just 4,400 per year. As a result, Canada’s population was just 12 million by the end of the Second World War, compared to 140 million in the United States.

      Even when there were Canadian immigration drives, such as in the 1870s and 1920s, they “mostly failed”, Saunders says, because the number of people who left the country on an annual basis often exceeded the number of arrivals. The only exception was in the period leading up to the First World War, when immigration peaked at over 400,000 in 1912.

      “The first half of Maximum Canada is sort of a cautionary lesson in saying ‘Let’s avoid closing ourselves off to the point that people don’t want to be here,’ ” Saunders says.

      In a chapter entitled “The Price of Underpopulation”, Saunders points out that this minimizing impulse has led to a less vibrant cultural life and the exodus of talented musicians, actors, architects, and writers. Other downsides from a low population include less innovation as a result of less competition, greater risk of economic decline from rising trade protectionism abroad, lower per capita incomes due to lower productivity, and more environmental problems resulting from “less efficient” cities.

      He also argues that an insular and Britain-oriented national policy had terrible consequences for racial minorities, whose family members were kept out of the country through restrictive immigration laws, and for the Québécois, whose economy floundered. Saunders maintains that this approach was also a factor in Indigenous people being “treated as a problem that had to be managed” through the creation of reserves and residential schools.

      When Canada became more outward-looking—and started developing a “maximizing impulse” after the Second World War—things began to change for minorities. “It was only when we started to see ourselves as expansive and open and diverse and part of a North American economy that we began to break through and see ourselves as a partnership of different nations in Confederation,” he says.

      Canada’s population tripled between the end of the Second World War and today. The latter part of his book explores what policymakers must do to plan for another possible tripling in the coming century. Even if the population only reaches 40 or 50 million, Saunders argues that many of his proposals, such as improving public transit and restricting urban sprawl, will still pay dividends over the long term.

      Many of his ideas germinated during a 15-year period when he was working outside of Canada as the Globe and Mail’s bureau chief in London and Los Angeles. Saunders says that living abroad enables a person “to hold up your country like a gemstone and then examine its different facets in that way”.

      “You start to see what you appreciate about your country when you live from afar, and you also start to see its oddities,” he suggests. “Why did it develop and grow differently than other former colonies? Why did it end up with such a small population? You start to see those macro things because you’re not caught up in the day-to-day policy debates that catch people up.”

      Doug Saunders will speak at the Whistler Writers Festival on Saturday and Sunday (October 14 and 15) and at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Wednesday (October 18).