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For the country with the second-largest landmass, Canada’s population is pretty minuscule. And not just minuscule relative to its land, or in comparison to the United States. Canada’s population is small in general. Canada is 38th in the world when it comes to size by population, behind countries a fraction of its size like the U.K., Italy and even Poland. Our grand total right now is 36,624,199. That doesn’t really seem like such a big deal, but author and journalist Doug Saunders wrote a whole book, Maximum Canada, on how tiny Canada is and how it’s actually hurting us.

Why are we so tiny in the first place?

As Saunders points out, we consider ourselves a country of immigrants, so where is everyone? As it turns out, Canada hasn’t always been as welcoming as it is today. According to Saunders’ research, before confederation and up until about 1967, Canada’s ‘colonial economic policies and an inward-facing worldview’ isolated us and made it difficult and even undesirable for people to immigrate here. In fact, during that time, there were more people fleeing Canada than trying to get in. Things are obviously better now, but our history has left its mark on the population.

What problems will unfold in the future?

While this population thing might not seem like such a big deal right now, Saunders sees it becoming a problem in the next few decades. How, you ask? There are three main ways.

First, a small population means a smaller consumer market. While businesses in other countries (the U.S. in particular) are able to flourish with almost unlimited consumers, our Canadian businesses are limited to the number of Canadians, which is significantly fewer than in other markets. Canadian businesses will never have the same opportunities as foreign ones to grow.

We also have a smaller tax-payer base, meaning the country has less money in general. It also means that the government can do less with our taxes. That negatively impacts us and means we can’t have as many public services as some other countries (at least we have universal health care).

The low population-density of our cities also means that we don’t have the numbers to put systems in effect like green transportation, efficient energy options and communities that foster integration. There just aren’t enough people who would use them for the government to justify putting the money in.

Hold up, urban density doesn’t seem to be a problem

Wait a second. If you’ve ever had to commute into a city for work, you know that you don’t want more people in that city. When you’ve been sitting in traffic for two hours, the last thing you’re thinking is ‘Gee, I wish there were three times more people here.’ Apparently, commuting is one of the things that would actually be improved if we had a higher population.

If we had more people and more tax-payers we could better justify, and pay for, more public transit options that would make commuting a whole lot easier. We could invest in better trains, have more express inter-city transportation and our neighbourhoods wouldn’t be as sprawling. So what looks and feels like an over-population problem is actually an under-population problem. That doesn’t really help you, but it’s something interesting to bring up the next time your carpool is stuck in traffic.

How is this going to happen?

In order for us to see any of the benefits Saunders outlines, the government needs to make investments in public systems like transportation and housing. A growing population will only make things worse if you don’t focus on the needs of that population. So hopefully in the next few decades we’ll see dramatic improvements in public transport and more affordable housing. We can dream, right?