There’s a good reason the immigration debate in Canada is calmer than in the U.S.
By Ron Kneebone
In recent years the world has been rocked by the movement of tens of millions of people fleeing war, disaster and other forms of conflict. Canada has helped relieve some of the pressures that come from such large movements of people by accepting refugees, asylum-seekers and also ordinary immigrants. Far from conflict zones, surrounded by oceans, and sharing its only border with a country that is not usually a significant source of refugees, Canada has been able to be very deliberate in its calculation of how many people it chooses to admit as citizens. In general, the choices made have served the Canadian economy well by reversing what would otherwise have been a steady decline in our population and our prospects for economic growth.
So far at least, and unlike the U.S. experience, Canadian immigration policy has not become very political. One reason the two countries’ politics on this issue have differed may be their differing national fertility rates. The figure shows the fertility rate in Canada and the United States for each year from 1920 to 2018. The fertility rate measures the average number of children that would be born to each woman over her child-bearing years given prevailing age-specific fertility rates. Also shown, as the horizontal dashed line, is the population replacement rate — the fertility rate required for the population to replace itself. The replacement rate varies over time and by country due to changes and differences in mortality rates. It probably has fallen in both countries since 1920 but it is currently judged to be roughly 2.1 children per woman.
The large swings in fertility rates between 1920 and 1960 strongly suggest economic conditions affect the decision to have children. The onset of the Great Depression in 1930 coincided with a significant drop in the fertility rate in Canada, a drop that started much earlier in the U.S. The post-war baby boom saw fertility rates in both countries increase by nearly 1.5 children. Peaking in 1960, the fertility rate plummeted across North America for the next 15 years before levelling off — by the mid-1970s in the U.S. and the mid-1980s in Canada. U.S. fertility rates have since risen and now hover near the replacement rate. In this country, however, they remain well below the replacement rate.
That U.S. fertility rates are higher than ours may surprise many Canadians. Families here have greater access to supports and benefits in the form of parental leave provisions, extended employment insurance benefits, and full health-care coverage. Continuing low fertility rates in Canada suggest other influences must also be important.
But whatever the reason for it, our low fertility rate highlights the need for high levels of immigration to maintain and grow the population. After the dramatic fall in fertility rates in the 1960s, the federal government introduced a number of reforms to immigration policy, beginning in the mid to late 1970s. Since the early 1990s, Canada has settled between 200,000 and 300,000 immigrants each year. The government recently announced annual targets over the next three years that average 340,000 new immigrants per year. This level of immigration will enable Canada’s population to grow despite our low fertility rate.
The data presented in the figure may help explain why in recent years the debate over immigration hasn’t been as sharp or divisive here as in the United States. For Canada, maintaining a significant level of immigration and also a high level of trust in the process by which we invite foreigners to apply for citizenship is crucial for maintaining our economic growth.
Ron Kneebone is Scientific Director of Social Policy and Health Research at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. This commentary expands on the August 2019 issue of the School’s monthly Social Policy Trends series available at www.policyschool.ca.