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Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough

By Doug Saunders

Review By John Douglas Belshaw

January 3, 2018

BC Studies no. 198 Summer 2018  | p. 194-6

Anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of eugenics, racism, the ‘domestication’ of women, and the history of the 20th century will know why pronatalism might ring the wrong bells. And this is setting aside the question of whether the public should be spending money so that the last five breeding pairs of humans in Smalltown, Canada, may claim funds to keep open the school and the health clinic. Indeed, let’s set aside the moral, historic, environmental, and fiscal questions of pronatalism, as Doug Saunders does, and focus instead on numbers.

Canada is, according to this study, grotesquely underpopulated. It’s one-third the size it should be. 100 million is the magic number, and a means to kickstart the conversation. To be clear, 100 million is where we should be now. Seeing as we’re not nearly there, it’s thus a goal to aim for in the 21st century. Three times the current number of Canadians by the time millennials collect their pension cheques. The world needs more Canada, evidently.

There are good arguments for a serious look at demographic goals and strategies. The baby boomers continue to age and they will need more taxpaying successors to deal with their rising health needs. Under-populated suburbs leave a heavy carbon footprint and impose inefficiencies on infrastructure for energy, transportation, and water. As for commerce, Canadian dependence on exports for prosperity has its limits (cue: American trade war) and a small population spread across a vast country is not enough of a marketplace. An under-populated Canada cannot generate the creative heat and light necessary to be culturally independent (cue: American cultural invasion). Saunders points out that 100 million Canadians would be better positioned to defend their country and its interests abroad, noting that recent events have shaken confidence that DC and Ottawa will indefinitely see eye to eye (cue: American real invasion).

All of this should be of interest to British Columbians precisely because the southwest corner of the province is where much of the population is likely to land. The proposal is not, let’s be clear, to spread out some 66 million babies and immigrants across the landscape like avocado smeared on toast. No, they shall be concentrated in those areas most able to (a) absorb their numbers and (b) maximize the many assets they bring. Saunders has written (more) persuasively about Arrival Cities and how landing pads like Surrey create a particular population dynamic.[1] He believes that it is in the outer ring of the metropolis that newcomers will find homes, establish businesses, and extend the reach of their distant villages. Handled smartly, he argues, this won’t contribute to further urban sprawl … it will cure it.

A population of 6 to 10 millions below Hope and stretching through Squamish to Lillooet would necessarily entail vastly greater density, would make better public transit worth the candle, and would hothouse creativity. We don’t have these assets now because of a “paradox”: Greater Vancouver requires “a lot more population in order to overcome the practical and ecological problems of population.” (174) It would also necessitate a severe recalibrating of political power in the province. As if the metropolitan areas do not already have a heavy claim on parliamentary representation, a super-sized Vancouver and a much larger Victoria would utterly eclipse even a doubled or trebled Prince George, Kamloops, or Nanaimo, let alone the truly rural parts.

It is too early to speak, as Saunders does, of “a maximizing consensus.” In a housing market like Vancouver’s, any proposal to double-down on immigration would raise more than eyebrows. Flipping this, it’s hard to accept Saunders’ argument that a “minimizing vision” has dominated Canadian cultural and political discourse since the 1600s. He makes the case, but with a shoehorn in hand. Was it the goal of every settler administration in what is now Canada to restrict population growth? Racist levies and barriers notwithstanding, it is difficult to shake the feeling that two-thirds of this book is spent erecting a strawman of fictive policy.

What Saunders has right is the need to discuss and make choices about population rather than further decades of ad hocery. These are difficult conversations because, as is the case with pronatalism, population policies trigger sharp responses. The people we might be in the future, in that case, are held hostage by the people we were in the past. As is so often the case, history is not through with us yet.


Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough
Doug Saunders
Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2017. 249pp. $20.95 paper       

[1] Doug Saunders, Arrival city: The Final Migration and Our Next World (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011).