By JANE ARMSTRONG
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
VANCOUVER -- For the first time in its history, Canada is facing a population decline -- beginning as early as nine years from now -- demographers predict, unless women start having more children or tens of thousands more immigrants are brought to prop the drooping growth rate.
The first census figures of the new millennium, released yesterday by Statistics Canada, showed that the country's population reached 30,007,094 in 2001, the year the nationwide enumeration was conducted.
The poll, conducted every five years, showed what many demographers have long predicted; Canada's population growth rate has slowed to an all-time low.
The country's population grew by 1,160,333, a 4-per-cent increase since the 1996 census, matching the lowest five-year growth rate in Canadian history.
And for the first time in 100 years, Canada is growing more slowly than the United States.
The current stall in growth has to do with lifestyle decisions of adults in their child-bearing years combined with the aging of the first baby boomers.
Even to keep the population stable will require more immigrants because Canada's fertility rate is just 1.5 children (the average number of children a woman will have over her lifetime), well below the rate of 2.1 children per woman needed to sustain population. Forty-five years ago, the average Canadian woman had four children over her lifetime.
"We're talking about a country whose population will stop growing within nine years if we don't have more immigration," said demographer David Baxter, executive director of the Urban Futures Institute
"We we are going to see a picture, that, in order to stand still in terms of population, we are going to have to increase our immigration every year," he told a news conference in Vancouver.
Canada's sluggish growth rate, while ahead of developed European countries, is far behind that of the United States, which had a 5.4-per-cent growth rate between 1995 and 2000. Mexico grew at 8.5 per cent.
Declining birth rates are a worldwide phenomenon, with developed countries leading the population crash. Many countries, including Russia, Japan and Germany, are having or will soon have real population declines.
Economists and demographers say the dropping birth rate is a trend that will continue and Canada will face labour shortages within five years unless young immigrants are brought here to fill jobs.
Between 1981 and 1986, the growth rate also dipped to 4 per cent but demographers attributed that decline to a global recession, felt particularly hard in Canada, which in turn may have scared off immigrants because fewer than half a million settled in Canada during that period.
That Canada's growth rate has come to a screeching halt now is no surprise. It is the result of a series of demographic shifts that began during the Depression, when people began leaving their farms and small towns for the city. It ended with the so-called brain drain in the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of Canadians left the country.
The urbanization trend caused birth rates to plummet because cities offered more job opportunities to women and dissipated the need for large families -- namely, a ready-made work force to work the farm.
Traditionally, Canada has countered its dropping birth rate by boosting immigration. But in the past two decades, the immigrants Canada selected have been more educated and urbanized. Hence, when they arrived in Canada, they too had fewer children.
Wilson Martinez and his wife Nelly Rubiano are one example. They left war-torn Colombia earlier this year. Educated and ambitious, Mr. Martinez, 33, and Ms. Rubiano, 30, don't plan to have children. Both have postgraduate degrees. Both plan to pursue careers in their chosen fields. In Colombia, Mr. Martinez taught environmental engineering at a university; Ms. Rubiano was a government administrator.
"I don't want to have kids. I want a job," said Mr. Martinez, who has been scouring British Columbia's Lower Mainland, trying to land an entry-level engineering position. "Then maybe, maybe, we will think about children. I don't know."
The final demographic trend to sink Canada's growth rate was the brain drain, which began in the last decade of the 20th century. During the 1990s, almost half a million Canadians left the country, largely to pursue careers elsewhere.
The slow growth rate means Canada's elderly population will continue to increase. By 2035, the percentage of Canadians 65 and older is expected to double to 25 per cent from 12 per cent.
"What that means is that fewer and fewer workers are supporting more and more elderly people," said David Ley, a geography professor at the University of British Columbia.
Prof. Ley added: "The cost of an elderly population is very, very substantial. One of the reasons why health-care costs are always going up is that the population that is most dependent or most needy of health-care is always going up as well and will continue to go up."
Canadians can expect to see the first labour shortages within five to 15 years, economists predict, beginning with skilled technical and trades workers.
Next, teachers, health-care workers, information-technology experts and academics will be in short supply.
That will cause the unemployment rate to drop, wages to rise, and certain in-demand workers, such as computer experts and teachers, will have greater bargaining power to negotiate wages and working conditions.
Mr. Baxter says Canada must make plans to deal with its aging population and impending labour shortages.
"Canada built a great system to be old in because the older population was so small relative to the working-age population," he said.
"We can't sustain that if we flip that pyramid upside down and suddenly have an older population that is very large relative to the working population."
CANADA BY NUMBERS
30,007,094: The number of Canadians counted in the 2001 census
33,871,000: The population of California
30,291,000: The population of Algeria
4: Percentage growth of Canada's population between 1996 and 2001
14.6: Percentage growth of Canada's population between 1951 and 1956
235,000: Estimated number of immigrants who came to Canada in 2001
63,854: Estimated number of people who left Canada in 2001
277,981: Growth of Alberta's population between 1996 and 2001
38,862: Shrinkage of Newfoundland's population between 1996 and 2001
1.5: As of 2001, the average number of children a woman will have over her lifetime
4: As of 1956, the average number of children a woman would have over her lifetime
79.4: Percentage of Canadians who lived in urban centres of 10,000 or more in 2001
51: Percentage of Canada's population living in four major urban centres -- the metropolitan Montreal area; the Golden Horseshoe in Southern Ontario; the Calgary-Edmonton corridor and British Columbia's Lower Mainland.