Too Many People In Canada?
For many, the very question is absurd. Surely Canada is a huge land of wide-open, seemingly endless spaces with abundant resources and ample room for many more people. This is what most who reflect on Canada’s population size think instinctively, and is what informs arguments and policies favouring ever more people. But it is a viewpoint based largely on myths and wishful thinking rather than on rational, scientific observations and assessments.
As of 2020, Canada’s population is rapidly approaching 38 million people. In fact, with growth at 1.4% last year, it’s one of the fastest growing developed countries in the world. PIC believes there are compelling reasons why this relentless increase in numbers should be critically examined, reduced and, ultimately, reversed until population size is consistent with Canada achieving an economically and environmentally sustainable future. To ignore facts and the associated imperatives of mushrooming growth is to sleepwalk into a future of almost certain and dire crises.
Non-stop growth is a fantasy
The above is neither alarmist nor exaggerated. Logically, infinite growth in a finite space is impossible. And in the case of Canada, land suitable for human habitation is far less abundant than the country’s large size would suggest. It’s no accident that pioneers settled along Canada’s southernmost rivers. This was – and is – where the best farmland is found, further north being ill-suited, and in large part impossible to farm due to poor soil and weather conditions. Before the advent of refrigerated trucks, fueled by plentiful energy, food had to be grown close to settled areas. Cities were built on southern, arable lands, and they continue to be. This, coupled with Canada’s harsh landscape and at times brutal, unforgiving climate, is why from early history until now, 80% of Canadians live within 160 kms of the U.S. border
Because growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite space or country, a continuously expanding Canadian population will eventually and inexorably face limits. These will first slow then halt further increases leading to decline. Limiting factors include renewable resources needed for the maintenance of human life, such as air, water, soil, forests, and fisheries, and the non-renewable resources on which our civilization depends. It is oil in particular, used to run agricultural machinery, to make fertilizers and pesticides, and to transport food from where grown to distant locations, that has allowed populations to continue to expand in such numbers. But globally, oil production will soon peak and then decline.
Calculating how many people Canada can support without doing irreparable damage to its environment (i.e. determining its carrying capacity) cannot be done simply by dividing the number of Canadians into total surface area. Such crude math leads to false conclusions since most of the land is highly unsuitable for human habitation. More realistically, one has to determine the capacity to accommodate in terms of the overall resources needed to feed, house, clothe, etc. a population, and then include the range of amenities required for a modern society to function.
Canada’s first, indigenous peoples were few in number, widely dispersed with most living in southern regions. Hunter-gatherers or small-scale farmers, they used simple, traditional methods to survive. Had larger numbers attempted to exist in more northerly regions, they would have found food sources to be insufficient. That almost 37 million Canadians now thrive is explained by technologies allowing them to benefit from easy to extract – but declining – coal, oil and gas resources. Clearly, the more people, the faster will be the depletion of these essential non-renewables.
Canada is blessed with 7% of the world’s fresh surface water. Again however, statistics mislead since most people live in the south whereas over 60% of Canada’s water flows north to the high Arctic. Water remains plentiful, and yet in expanding southern metropolitan regions it is in ever-greater demand, and increasingly is polluted – both factors making it more costly to supply.
In 2009, the Council of Canadian Academies warned that groundwater, then serving 10+ million people, was threatened by misuse and contamination caused by “rampant” urbanization, industrialization and intense agriculture. It listed 28,000 contaminated sites. Since 2009, many more have been added and, since groundwater moves only slowly through porous rock, the impact of contamination takes decades to be revealed. Since 2009 its harm has surely increased by the arrival of almost two million more “contaminators” into Canada’s urban centres!
The Great Lakes
The largest fresh water system on earth with 20% of the world’s surface water, the Great Lakes region is home to 40+ million North Americans. Experts warn that despite their impressive size, the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem is experiencing serious and worsening degradation from urbanization, climate change and invasive species. Elevated levels of pathogens and harmful pollutants, an increase in untreated sewage, higher water temperatures and levels of oxygen-poor conditions, plus water-borne disease outbreaks – all linked to population increases – have led to concerns over water quality threatening fisheries, recreational use and drinking water safety.
Canada’s many rivers are important sources of fresh water. However, every major river has some measure of control to ensure a constant supply of water and/or hydropower while providing flood control and recreational opportunities. Yet, damming rivers often destroys wildlife habitat and fish spawning grounds. Worse still, Alberta’s super-sized oil sands operations use massive quantities of Athabasca River water, 90% of which is not recycled, ending in tailing ponds of harmful pollutants.
Water for export?
Abundant though Canada’s water resources clearly are, they are already heavily exploited. What is more, the negative impact of climate change plus still rapidly increasing population growth south of the border have resulted in mounting pressures for what could be significant volumes of water being exported in future to a water-parched USA.
Surprisingly little of Canada’s land area—about 7%—is suitable for agriculture and only 0.5% classified as “class 1” with no significant limitations to farming. Despite this, governments have permitted large tracts of these most fertile lands to be used to meet urban demands, resulting in the loss of a precious, irreplaceable agricultural asset. This is especially grave in southern Ontario where over half of Canada’s “class 1” agricultural land is located. As erosion, salination, and desertification are taking significant amounts of the world’s best agricultural land out of production, Canada is permitting large tracts of its most fertile land to be urbanized or paved over to meet the demands of ever more people.
Future generations, in Canada and beyond, will certainly have to contend with more expensive non-renewable energy sources affecting both the cost of food and costs of transporting it. With much of the world’s farmland already under severe stress, and with large parts of the world increasingly affected by water scarcity and/or drought, any expectation that imports will compensate for the loss of Canada’s own agricultural productivity seems unrealistic.
Sadly, negative environmental trends in Canada replicate those in most other parts of the world with flora and fauna disappearing as human habitation expands. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada warns that 645 wildlife species are now endangered. Of 428 bird species that breed in Canada, 60 face extinction. Some have already been reduced by 80% or more. Some species, for example the Peary caribou, numbering 50,000 in the 1960s, down to 8,000 now, are seriously at risk. Even the future of the iconic Canadian polar bear is uncertain, thanks to man-made climate change and the associated retreat of polar ice. All efforts to mitigate species loss are compromised by relentless human population increases.
Witness the Prairies
Agricultural development in the 1800s and 1900s devastated the Prairies’ natural grassland habitat and associated biodiversity. Over 90% of tall grasses, 80% of the fescue, and 67% of the mixed grass prairie habitat were lost to farming. Approximately 70% of wetlands, critical for wildfowl and migratory birds, were also lost. Bison (“buffalo”) herds, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were killed. What remains of natural prairie today are relatively small, protected islands surrounded by non-native vegetation, thus reducing available habitat and impeding the movement of wildlife in search of food and shelter. Almost half of Prairie organic matter and natural nutrient content has been eroded, oxidized or otherwise displaced by farming. Resulting soil degradation has led farmers to increase fertilizer use. This in turn has resulted in further soil quality loss, water contamination and greenhouse gas emissions.
Given its northern location, Canada is one of the highest per capita energy users in the world: 8262 kilos of oil equivalent per person per year (vs. 7768 = USA; 1433 = China; 289 = Ethiopia). This use produces 20+ tons of greenhouse gasses per capita annually. Long winters and an exceptionally cold climate lead to high housing, clothing and utility costs, while Canada’s size and the great distances between its cities result in correspondingly high transport costs. Expenditures all increase, often exponentially, the further north one goes. Even as ways have been found to reduce per capita energy consumption, aggregate benefits have been cancelled by rising population levels.
Too Many People in Canada?
Compelling evidence has led demographers, and those most focused on environmental degradation and non-renewable resource depletion, to judge that Canada, while arguably not overpopulated, is rapidly approaching the point of being technically in “overshoot” in terms of sustainable self-sufficiently. But as yet this is not a widely held view. Indeed all levels of government, strongly encouraged by the economic sector, have consistently pursued growth-promoting policies with varying degrees of urgency. Economic growth – whose negative consequences are never seriously debated, questioned or assessed – is widely seen as a “good thing”, essential to Canadians’ well-being, and with population growth held to be a key economic driver. The “fetish” of pursuing endless economic growth, and the associated folly of following an economic model predicated on continuous population increases, has long been accepted conventional wisdom in Canada.
Immigration, the key
This explains why, with Canada’s birthrate from the early 1970s at or below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, all governments have supported policies designed to encourage population growth, mainly by immigration. In the past 25 years, immigration targets have been about 250,000 per year (reaching a high of 281,000 in 2010), with the total number of arrivals added to by refugees (few), temporary foreign workers (182,000 in 2010), and short-stay international students. While the latter two usually return to their homelands, when in Canada they too have a “foot-print”, a negative environmental impact. Federal and Provincial governments, notably Quebec’s, have long encouraged – albeit with limited success – population growth directly or indirectly through various financial incentives, e.g. the “baby bonus”; heavily subsidized daycare; income tax breaks; tax exemptions for baby supplies; enticements to rich, prospective immigrants; etc. Despite a fertility rate of 1.6 children per female, Canada’s current growth rate is 1.2% annually, an aggregate increase due solely to immigration. If continued, this rate would result in a doubling of population in 58 years. Absent current immigration rates, Canada’s population would have stabilized at well below 30 million people.
Charting a course for a healthy, prosperous, sustainable future
At some point common sense or the laws of nature must lead to a halt in endless population growth. Determining factors could be many, from depleted or insufficient non-renewable resources, especially energy; to the inability to grow food supplies; to amenable space considerations; to climate change; to dangerous and/or unacceptably high levels of environmental degradation of Canada’s relatively small corner of the Earth’s biosphere. Or, it could simply come from growing public realization that population numbers do matter, and that more is neither necessary nor better in order to maintain a humane and acceptably high quality of life for all Canadians.
PIC believes Canada should seek to become a model sustainable society in an environmentally stressed, increasingly resource-strapped, patently overpopulated world. To do so, it must stabilize its own numbers and encourage other countries to do likewise. Rather than driving population growth through financial inducements and immigration, Canada should abandon the former, encourage smaller families and adopt a balanced migration policy, accepting only as many people into the country as the number who leave. Only by pursuing these objectives will Canada achieve the goal of a sustainable future for generations to come.