Canada at a crisis point: Do we manage our growth or accept our decline?

This is the first in a series of articles published as a collaboration between The Philanthropist and Century Initiative.


Canada is at a crossroads. Our population is aging, our fertility rates are below replacement levels, and our workforce is shrinking. As the non-working-age population grows, and as people live longer, the burden on our working-age population will only increase. This will slow economic growth, which in turn affects governments’ fiscal flexibility to provide the programs and services – like high-quality healthcare and education, income security, and much-needed infrastructure – we rely on.

With some projections suggesting that Canadian birthrates could decline further because of the pandemic, this issue should be top of mind for policy-makers. It should also be of concern to the charitable sector, particularly those organizations providing social supports and services and who may experience greater demand if government’s ability to fund similar programs comes under pressure.

Today, Canada ranks 35th in the world in population size, despite being one of the biggest countries by landmass. Similarly, we rank 32nd in GDP per capita and 30th in terms of the size of our labour force. While the rankings themselves aren’t important, they do flag some worrying trends related to our population, and in turn our economic potential. Without a growing population, we will not have the resources – whether we’re talking about the human resources or financial means – to advance the country’s social, economic, or environmental goals.

In his book How We Can Win (co-written by Kate Fillion)venture capitalist Anthony Lacavera writes, “Canada is at a critical moment, an inflection point where all of us have a responsibility to try to bend the arc of history in the right direction, so that our children and their children enjoy the same quality of life and equality of opportunity that we have had. That will not happen if, collectively, we keep going for bronze.”

To enhance our economic strength, diversity at home, and our influence abroad, we must prioritize population growth, with immigration as a key driver of this growth. But population growth alone isn’t enough, and it won’t happen overnight. It takes long-term vision and planning. For instance, we need to consider how we support a growing population. That means thinking about the kind of infrastructure we need – from hospitals, roads, and schools to the digital infrastructure we increasingly rely on to connect socially and conduct business. It means thinking about what supports, services, and programs are required if we want to encourage larger families, the kinds of supports and services that allow a family to make the choice to have more children. And it means thinking about our longer-term labour and skills needs so that we can focus on attracting immigrants, and their families, that can help to fill our persistent skills gaps. We also need to think about how we will help Canadians understand not just the need to grow our population, but to grow it primarily through immigration.

Century Initiative is an organization that is working to help on this front. Founded in 2016 by a group of Canadian leaders from different backgrounds, but with a shared understanding of the link between population size and economic prosperity, Century Initiative exists to provide a platform for the argument that Canada needs to grow its population. Specifically, it has set an aspirational target for Canada of 100 million people by the year 2100. More important, Century Initiative advocates for us – as citizens, business leaders, and policy-makers – to start thinking longer-term about our prosperity and the country we will leave the next generation of Canadians. Our premise is simple: if we don’t start planning now, taking steps to grow our population and developing the policies and infrastructure necessary to do it in a smart, sustainable way, Canada risks a slow decline in its prosperity, quality of life, diversity, and international influence.

Century Initiative’s founders are sometimes asked why, of all the causes they could dedicate their time and energy to, they have chosen the need for long-term population growth. Simply put, they’re trying to think generationally. New York Times columnist David Brooks has an interesting way of describing this mode of thinking. In his book The Second Mountain, he writes of the difference between “neighbours” and “individuals.” For Brooks, individuals are concerned primarily with making today and tomorrow better. A neighbour, on the other hand, “plants trees that will bear fruit she will never eat, and cast shade she will never enjoy.”

Mark Wiseman, chair of the board for Century Initiative, echoed that idea in the Globe and Mail: “At a time when countries around the world are adopting increasingly nationalist and protectionist agendas, a goal of growing to 100 million Canadians by 2100 will be truly transformational for Canada. And taking relatively small action now . . . will pay compounding benefits – economic, social, and cultural – to all Canadians over the course of the next century.”

Privileging today to the detriment of tomorrow

Shifting to this kind of generational thinking is not easy. The impulse to focus only on the immediate is a natural one, but it comes with consequences not just for us, but for future generations as well. We need look no further than the SARS pandemic of the early 2000s: despite that experience, and repeated warnings since that another pandemic was coming, when COVID-19 hit the world was largely unprepared. For instance, we found ourselves without enough personal protective equipment for doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers.

This is true of the charitable and non-profit sector, too, where we often prioritize today over tomorrow. From addressing the crisis in front of us or focusing only on the next funding cycle, to the constant pressure to demonstrate immediate impact to donors or funders, the sector is easily distracted from longer-term thinking and planning. While talk of population growth may not form an immediate connection in the minds of many who work in the charitable sector, the country’s prosperity will have an impact on our ability to continue doing the work we do. In addition, as the population grows, it is inevitable that state-funded programs won’t keep up with demand for social services and supports. As a result, we can expect the appetite for support from the sector to grow, and we should be planning for that now.

However, for as long as Canada remains solidly in the grip of the greatest public-health crisis of our lifetime, finding treatments to help those infected and getting people vaccinated are our most pressing needs, collectively, followed closely by the need to accelerate our social and economic recovery. And, as we come to terms with what kind of post-pandemic Canada we want, we all need to think like good neighbours.

For it to have the desired impact on our quality of life and standard of living, population growth needs to be supported by a roadmap: We need to make the right investments in education to ensure that we’re equipping students with the skills they need for the jobs and challenges not just of today, but tomorrow too. We need to find ways to address the systemic barriers that prevent under-represented groups from participating fully in our economy. We need to invest in programs to attract employees to sectors and regions of the country where skilled labour is required, and to encourage entrepreneurship so that we can grow the talent we need for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

We need to invest in the national and urban infrastructure required for our communities to grow in a sustainable manner – and that includes digital infrastructure. COVID-19 has forced us to rely on new technologies and platforms to connect with one another, to work, even to access healthcare services. From the kids who have been doing their schoolwork in virtual classrooms or family holidays shared via video call, to telehealth appointments for our aging parents or a succession of business meetings with people we’ve never met in person, we have come to rely on digital infrastructure in ways we never imagined. When the pandemic passes, we will return to some of our old habits, but COVID has taught us that we can do much more than we thought via screens and fibre-optic cabling, and in some cases we may choose not to go back to the old way of doing things.

We also need to prioritize supporting parents with a national childcare strategy, and our children with early education programs. The pandemic has shown us that despite some progress, women still bear most of the burden of child- and family-care. A robust economy requires that we make available to families affordable childcare options so that they aren’t faced with making the difficult economic choice not to work.

The charitable sector has the skills and experience to contribute on this front. From capacity-building and frontline service delivery to relief efforts, the charitable sector has the know-how to be an important partner to the government and the private sector, not just in delivering programs, but in helping to identify needs and designing and developing the solutions to address them.

As we have noted, though, the challenge for those of us in the non-profit sector is the immense pressure to focus only on what is right in front of us, not on the far-off future. In fact, many of our organizations exist to respond, in real time, to the crisis or issue of the day, and the funding models that sustain us are similarly built. While many funders promote a focus on outcomes, many are still funding short-term, output-focused grants. The rules that govern the sector are outdated and constrain rather than enable charities to deliver their missions. The Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector’s report, Catalyst for Change: A Roadmap to a Stronger Charitable Sector, identified key challenges such as how we define charity in Canada, issues relating to direction and control of intermediaries, and a lack of home for the sector in government. Together, these act as the greatest impediments to our ability to think and act for the long-term.

As Senator Ratna Omidvar, a Century Initiative board member, says, “A vision and plan for the country – our roadmap to prosperity – must include a strong, enabled, and thriving charitable sector. This relies on updated laws and regulations and long-term funding that can unlock the sector’s potential to better meet the needs of Canadians today and into the future.”

Making the tomorrow we want today’s priority

In our report For a Bigger, Bolder Canada, Century Initiative argues that our quest for long-term change begins with small steps: setting shorter-term goals, measuring progress along the way, learning from and leveraging our successes, and moving quickly to address any unexpected consequences.

For instance, in the next article in this series, based on an interview with board member Willa Black, we will dig deeper into how COVID-19 has rendered digital services and infrastructure so critical to our daily lives, and its potential to have a positive influence on the non-profit sector.

Similarly, in our third article we’ll look at Century Initiative’s soon-to-be launched National Scorecard, which explores the factors that will influence Canada’s ability to achieve a population of 100 million and examines how we are performing on each of them. Our analysis will provide some insights into the challenges and opportunities each of these present for the non-profit sector to play a key role in helping Canada reach this goal.

While Century Initiative believes that Canada is one of the world’s most prosperous, diverse, and egalitarian nations, a country that is the envy of millions who would love to call it home, we also know that this Canada is not a given. As the pandemic has shown us in spades, we may be resilient, but our prosperity is also fragile. We can protect it, though – not just for ourselves, but for future generations too. To achieve that, we need to think big. And we need to work together, like good neighbours.

“Together, we can make Canada the most sought-after place in the world to live, work, and raise a family. A place where the economy is booming and people are productive, innovative, and leading change for the next century,” says Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.

To do so, we need to set bold goals. And we need to start now, with a national conversation about what kind of Canada we want and how we get there. Through our work, we hope to help start that conversation, because we believe we have an opportunity in front of us. Let’s not squander it.


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