Shooting Ourselves in the Foot: The Pro-Growth Agenda Continues in Canada
The pandemic has not cured Canada’s addiction to growth
Along with economic devastation and the concomitant social consequences on physical and mental health, the COVID-19 pandemic has starkly shown the downside of urban densification. Dense populations provide viruses with more opportunities for transmission, hence the directives to maintain social distance in public places and stay home as much as possible. The latter is surely a greater burden for someone living in a small apartment in a densifying urban zone than for someone who has a house on a wooded lot or lives near a park.
The economic shutdowns enforced during the early stages of the pandemic resulted in a peak unemployment rate of 13.7% in July, which fell to a still very high 9% by September. The employment situation for certain age groups is worse. The jobless rate for youth was 20.5% in September, down from 25.6% in August. Many Canadians, especially those in the hardest hit sectors, are dependent on government assistance to survive. With the predicted “second wave” upon us in parts of the country, and restaurants and many businesses forced to close or greatly reduce their activities, the employment situation remains uncertain.
The turmoil of 2020 provided governments with the perfect opportunity to reconsider their priorities, chief among which might be developing a pandemic preparedness plan and establishing, to the extent possible, self-sufficiency in critical supplies. And, not least, to rethink the economic paradigm of continuous growth. In Canada, for the last several decades, the imperative of economic growth has been met by driving population growth through immigration. Per capita, Canada has the highest intake of immigrants among industrialized countries.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and closed borders, Canada’s intake of immigrants fell dramatically during 2020, and polls show that Canadians are in no rush to return to pre-pandemic levels. But their government thinks otherwise and, despite high unemployment and economic uncertainties, on Friday announced its plans to bring in 1.2 million immigrants over the next three years, starting with 401,000 in 2021. The intake would include skilled workers, family members and refugees.
But exactly why is the Liberal government going into hyperdrive on immigration with a pandemic-shocked economy still on shaky ground? Leah Nord, senior director of workforce strategies and inclusive growth for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, says that despite unemployment rates higher than those seen in years, there are still job vacancies and jobs that need to be filled. “Immigration,” she says, “can play an important role in diversity and economic growth, but also in filling labour market gaps, for sure.” Rather than worry about diversity and economic growth, we suggest that the Government of Canada and Chamber of Commerce direct their focus on getting unemployed Canadians to fill those labour market gaps and providing training where needed.
Canada’s pursuit of economic growth through population growth is misguided from any perspective. Despite the rhetoric about Canada’s aging population, immigration has not changed the age structure of Canada. The growth of its population through immigration has not increased the real earnings of the average Canadian. Rather than GDP or population size, government policies should focus on equality levels, debt, job quality and life satisfaction. The monetized metrics used to represent growth, such as GDP and tax revenue, are not good indicators of well-being or fiscal viability. Over the past six decades, growth has failed to lower debt and inequality, increase housing affordability, improve job quality, or assure fiscal balance. On the contrary, Canadians are carrying more debt than ever before and an increasing number are being priced out of the housing market, while low income earners in many communities cannot afford to pay the rent.
Canada’s growth also has negative environmental impacts. Canada is a high resource-consuming country and high per capita user of energy and producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Many immigrants come from countries with relatively low per capita GHG emissions, and the average GHG emissions of newcomers to Canada increase by a factor of four. Our growing population and increasing urbanization result in the loss of farmland and wildlife habitat.
Growth boosters and those who profit from it present growth as the solution to problems it has never solved. But continuous population and economic growth are not only unsustainable – whatever benefits they have go to the few (speculators, developers, bankers, businesses seeking cheaper labour or a larger market), while the social and environmental costs are borne by all.
Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668