Last month, Statistics Canada released its statistical portrait of the country with the first population numbers since 2011. There are now precisely 35,151,728 Canadians, at least on Census Day, May 10, 2016. As the Stats Can release notes, that is about ten times as many Canadians as there were when the first census was taken in 1871 when there were 3.5 million people. Its up from the 20 million Canadians counted during Canada’s centenary year, 1967. And while Canada is the fastest growing G7 country at one per cent annually, our population growth is slowing, and the increase is mostly due to immigration, not births.

From 2011 to 2016, Canada’s population grew roughly five per cent, or by 1.7 million people. Stats Can reports that fully two-thirds of the growth was through net migration (immigration minus emigration), while just one-third of the population growth was through what demographers call the “natural increase” (the difference between births and deaths). Canada’s aging population and low fertility rate suggests that immigration will play a proportionately larger role in population growth in the near future. As soon as the mid-2020s, the natural increase will account for less than one-fifth of the population growth. Stats Can forecasts that by the late 2040s, immigrants will account for fully 100 per cent of population growth in Canada. Laurent Martel, director of Stats Can’s demography division, told the Toronto Star, “50 years from now, basically all population growth will be … immigration.”


That means we are headed into the same situation as Germany, Italy, and Japan, which have recently recorded more deaths than births, with Japan’s population shrinking and Germany and Italy relying entirely on immigration for its population growth.

Canada’s fertility rate – the number of children a hypothetical woman would have during her “reproductive life” between the age of 15 and 49 – was a mere 1.6 children. Demographers consider a fertility rate of 2.1 to be the so-called “replacement rate” to allow a population to grow without immigration. Canada has been below the replacement rate since 1971.The 1.6 fertility rate over the past five years is a tick above the previous rate of 1.59 from 2006 to 2011, but is still too low to spur population growth over time.

There are any number of factors for declining fertility rates.

Birth rates tanked after the mid-1960s, a time when cultural change (feminism, the sexual revolution, increased female participation in the workforce) combined with legal changes (legalization of birth control and abortion in 1969).

Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute for the Family, told the Canadian Press that smaller families and childless couples are increasingly the norm for a combination of reasons including the growing cost of rearing children, the fact many women are putting off their first child until their 30s, and that many women work outside the home. In the 1960s, the average age for first birth was 22, but today it’s 30. Women tend to have fewer children when they have them later in life.

Susan McDaniel, Canada research chair in global population, says that family size might be declining as fewer people self-identify as religious, noting that the United States has a fertility rate of 1.88 – the highest in the industrialized world – in part because it has a large number of evangelical and Catholic adherents.

Last year, a Cardus Family report found that Canadian families were having about a half child less than they wanted on average and that respondents to their survey said that the expense of having a child ranked as the number one obstacle to having a larger family. Andrea Mrozek of Cardus told The Interim at the time that, “Canadians may have a hard time living out their aspirations,” and said that the financial struggles of families indicated government should prioritize funding to help couples fulfill their dreams of optimal family size.

Canada’s population has grown steadily, if unevenly, since Confederation. Stats Can reported that in the first three decades of Canada’s nationhood, almost all population growth was natural; even though Canada welcomed immigrants, the country saw as many people cross our border for the United States. The fastest population growth occurred in the first decade of the 20th century, when population spiked at a three per cent annual rate from 1901 to 1911, due to both immigration and natural growth (a spike in births combined with the beginnings of longer lifespans). Population growth slowed during the Great Depression in the 1930s, but boomed after World War II when the economy grew steadily and fertility rates surged.

Richard Saillant notes in his recent book A Tale of Two Countries: How the Great Demographic Imbalance is Pulling Canada Apart (Nimbus, $22.95, 232 pages), that there were more babies born during the post-war Baby Boom than there are today despite there being then a population less than half Canada’s current size. For parts of the 1950s, there were more than 500,000 births a year, more than there are today. Salliant says, “in order for births to have a similar impact as the baby boom on Canada’s age structure, Canadian women would need to deliver well in excess of one million babies annually rather than the 375,000 they are having today.”

As quickly as fertility rates rose, they came down. In the mid-1940s, the fertility rate held at around 3.0 babies per woman before peaking at 3.9 in 1959. However, by 1966, Salliant reports, it had fallen to 3.2 and by 1971 had dipped down to 2.1 (replacement rate). It has not been that high since. Fertility rates continued to fall until it hit a plateau of roughly 1.6 babies per woman in 1983.

Provinces in Atlantic Canada suffered the double whammy of migration to other provinces and lower fertility rates. In some years, Stats Can reported that Newfoundland and Labrador recorded more deaths than births. Whereas Alberta saw its population grow 11.5 per cent from 2011 to 2016, New Brunswick’s population declined a half per cent while Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland experienced anemic population growth between 0.2 per cent and 1.9 per cent.

Salliant’s book warns that demography threatens the fiscal stability of some provinces, mostly in the east. The same is true for Quebec, which suffered an earlier fertility rate decrease as it rapidly urbanized – urbanization correlates to declining fertility rates – and underwent the Quiet Revolution when Quebeckers turned their back on the Roman Catholic Church. Salliant warns that demographic imbalances – younger, working, taxpaying citizens in Ontario and the west compared to an aging, retired, benefits-receiving population in the east – threaten Canada’s economic and political stability.

Most models of economic growth and the actuarial realities of Canada’s social programs, require robust population growth. A 2010 C.D. Howe Instit
ute study found that “age-sensitive public programs” such as healthcare, education, and elderly and children benefits “persist as the population evolves” and could amount to a “liability of $2.8 trillion” over 50 years without program reform. Other C.D. Howe studies have indicated that immigration is not dramatically altering Canada’s population make-up because immigrants are not, on average, that much younger than the median Canadian age.

Accepting immigrants might not be the long-term answer. Political eruptions in the United States with the Donald Trump victory and in Europe with the rise of the anti-immigrant Right, suggest limits to how much immigration some countries will countenance. Indeed, an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada last summer and reported last month found that, generally, Canadians were welcoming to immigrants, but support for pro-immigration policies were soft. One in five Canadians support a policy of ending all immigration and another 35 per cent neither opposed or supported such a policy.

Ultimately Canada’s future depends not on immigrants, but Canadian families having more children, which seems more a cultural than public policy challenge. The Toronto Star reported last year that there were 9.3 million birth control pill prescriptions in 2015 (down from 10.5 million oral contraceptive prescriptions in 2011). But the Star also reported that health information company QuintilesIMS has found strong interest in other contraceptive forms, including “estrogen-free and nonhormonal methods, IUDs and fertility tracking apps.” In other words, women are still trying to avoid becoming pregnant.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Research, there are about 100,000 surgical abortions each year in Canada. It is impossible to estimate how many fewer babies are born because of oral contraceptives, but fertility rates are obviously taking a big hit because of contraception and abortion.

Whatever is needed to Canada’s population growing, abortion and contraception are hardly ever mentioned as part of the problem. Last fall, the Advisory Council on Economic Growth to Finance Minister Bill Morneau advocated for a plan to get Canada’s population to 100 million by the end of the century. There was nary a word on natural population growth as the entire focus was on how to attract tens of millions of immigrants by making Canada economically more attractive. Perhaps raising incomes and making life affordable in Canada will marginally bump up the fertility rates, but it seems that for all the talk about Canada’s population growth – or lack thereof – 100,000 abortions annually and nearly 10 million contraception prescriptions a year are the elephants in the room.