Story By Jamie Drummond, Featuring Greybrook Magazine, Issue 2
Following our current trajectory, Canada’s population is expected to grow to approximately 54 million people by the year 2100, reaching 48 million by 2050 and barely increasing over the next 50 years after that.
Canada’s population is both ageing and declining in relation to other countries, which means fewer working people will be supporting a costly older population. This also may mean that Canada could not longer belong in the G7 or G8–we may be lucky to crack the G20.
At least that is what Century Initiative believes.
Launched in October of 2016, Century Initiative (CI) is a registered charity focused upon Canada’s future, specifically how to maintain the prosperity and standard of living over the long term in the context of a small and ageing population.
Founded by a group of business leaders passionate about the future of Canada, Dominic Barton (McKinsey), Mark Wiseman (formerly CPPIB and now Blackrock), and Tom Milroy (formerly Bank of Montreal and now Generation Capital), CI originally convened to discuss what the most pressing issues would be for Canada over the next century and how they could contribute. Collectively, they decided that a demographic strategy was a topic of critical, long-term importance to Canada.
With population decline and skills shortages already being seen in a number of regions and business sectors in Canada, CI was launched to raise the level of awareness around this topic, create opportunities for discussion and engagement, and ultimately work toward informed public policy and other solutions.
We spoke with CI’s founding board member Goldy Hyder to learn more about their mission and his take on Canada’s future.
Greybrook: You are proposing a very bold idea. What is the problem with maintaining the status quo and Canada’s current trajectory? Why is now the time to take action and make change?
Goldy Hyder: Our 100 million people by 2100 goal is provocative, sexy, and gets people’s attention, which means we get to at least debate it. When people say it’s a bold idea, I challenge that. When you look at history and the period of 1918 to 2000, a period comparable with the period between 2018 and 2100, in that first timeframe the population grew 3.7x. We are actually only proposing a population growth of 2.7x. So, Canada has done this before.
To some that may not matter, but the truth is that Canada has always had a history of punching above its weight. As a country, we have been able to insert ourselves in the global politics despite being a relatively small player. But as you look forward, you see the rise of Asia and the re-emergence of emerging markets of India, China, and other places. We are seeing a shift where globalization is becoming, to some extent, a great equalizer. People are thinking, “Where do I want to go? Where is the future? And what does this future look like?” And many are able to act on their choices.
What Japan has taught [us] is that you can be insular and close-minded about immigration and population growth, but when the crisis hits, you don’t just suddenly get to grow people like you grow plants. That’s why Canada has to proactively attract and make room for those dynamic, engaged people from other countries now. You can’t catch up later. It just doesn’t happen. And unlike some other countries, we have the opportunity to take a thoughtful, long-term approach. Our geography and overall abundant availability of land means that we are not necessarily forced into responding to immediate crises–we can be more thoughtful, strategic, and prepared.
GB: Why is population size such a pivotal issue for Canada?
GH: Population growth is just smart business. I come at it from two perspectives: one is history, and the other is opportunity.
History validates that when we have seen bursts of population growth, whether driven by natural population growth or by immigration, correspondingly our economy and GDP improve. You can map it out over the last 150 years and see that the economic reaction to population and immigration growth is a net positive one.
The second part for me, coming at it as an entrepreneur, is that you want to realize the potential of the asset you have. You want to seize the opportunity that represents Canada.
As an asset, we see the country as underutilized and underdeveloped, and with the right strategy, the right long-term view, the right decisions in terms of investment, and proactive policy making, Canada would really be able to flourish.
GB: Can you paint a picture of what Century Initiatives hopes Canada will look like?
GH: We can’t all go to Toronto. We have to strengthen other places.
One of the things that we are trying to do is promote the notion of megaregions. A megaregion could be all the space between Calgary and Edmonton. That’s a lot of space, so let’s see if we can establish a new city of substantial size in Alberta. [In order to do this], money follows message, and public policy is a very important component of that.
We do need, at times, incentives or motivation for people–a simple example being utilizing tax policy by saying, “Look, you could live in Toronto, but if you live in Windsor or Timmins, we are going to do the following things for you.” We haven’t spoken about the north [of Canada] much, but one day the resource-rich north is going to be of enormous strategic advantage for Canada. And more people will be needed to drive the development and growth that is going to benefit northern communities while ensuring that Indigenous leadership and vision are maintained.
One of the core tension points in Canada is less to do with French/English, or east/west, and more to do with the urban/rural divide, and I think that we have to do a better job of building the bridge between the urban and rural communities. Rural communities have long been a pillar of the Canadian economy from the agriculture sector on, and we need to ensure that the importance of the rural communities stays in place.
What CI is trying to do here is take the long view. The decisions that we make now will determine whether Canada can in fact grow and develop these megaregions and megacities and superclusters, and if not, we are going to end up not being able to pivot, and again, see Japan. So it has to be strategic, it has to be coordinated, and it has to take that longer view.
I am excited that Century Initiative is shaking things up and giving them a little jolt, saying, “Hey gang, we can’t just coast. We can’t just cruise.” Our complacency will take us off the cliff.
GB: You made a comment that capital is mobile and will leave if we, as a country, don’t take the steps to ensure we continue to be an attractive country that others want to invest in. Can you elaborate on this?
GH: I tell the story of being in India and speaking to many high-net-worth investors who are already in Canada and asking, “Why don’t you add to your existing operations here, diversify, and invest more?” They explained that everyone is after their investment, so when they look at those decisions, what they look at is where is the upside? Where is the future? What is the cost of doing business in those markets? What is the regulatory environment in which we are operating? And [they say] when we look at all those factors, it is easier to invest somewhere else.
Why not Australia, for example? [It’s] a very comparable country to Canada, but do you know what Australia did? They spent $100 million on changing their brand, sending a message that it’s not just a country way out in the middle of nowhere, and money follows message.
GB: You have previously stated that Canada’s brand internationally can be summed up in one word: nice. What’s wrong with that?
GH: Well, the brand “nice” is wonderful if you are a cookie, but we are a country, and as a country, both our potential and our reality is so much more than that. I think we need to have a backdrop of a highly competitive, globalized economy with mobility of talent and mobility of capital.
Canada’s brand could be bolder, a bit more aggressive, a bit more ambitious. Canada’s brand should be innovative, creative, and cool. Even cool is better than just nice, in my opinion.
Nice is true in that we are a country that wants inclusive prosperity, [where] everyone can contribute and benefit–not only those at the top. A place where we take care of our most vulnerable. I think that is actually a competitive differentiator for our brand. We make diversity, inclusion, and compassion a way of life while at the same time being a dynamic and supportive place for business.
Nice alone though is not enough. It’s great if you are coming to retire, but it doesn’t really scream entrepreneurial, it doesn’t scream ambitious, and I think that we need to do more to leverage what has become–under this government at least–the notion of our prime minister’s personal brand as being kind of cool, with a focus on increased immigration. Well, that’s great, but let’s make it more than that. Let’s use the moment to make it more about the economy, innovation, talent, a return on that investment. That population growth will allow you to build your business here and have the talent to staff your business.
GB: What choices should governments make over the next decade to spend their infrastructure dollars more wisely and help us prepare for a larger population?
GH: Infrastructure, in many ways, is about maintenance. It’s like renovating your home to a certain extent, as you can’t let it fall apart. You actually have to fix the leaky roof; you have to do those things, so part of our infrastructure agenda today is largely a maintenance agenda. We have to catch up on the lack of infrastructure spent over the last few decades, and this represents a lot of opportunities for businesses.
But the other opportunity is to think about infrastructure for the future. What kind of megacities can we build? What kind of superclusters are available to us? What kind of regions need to be constructed? And then what are the policies to support that? Infrastructure is, in many ways, an expansion of the social safety net that we talk about in Canada; we normally think about it as education, healthcare, and so forth, but for me infrastructure is a vital part of that social safety net.
For us the education, employment, and entrepreneurship components are really critical. When you look ahead, despite all the attention being given to robots and AI, [we cannot] underestimate the importance of people in the economy of the future. They are going to be the ones who are driving creativity. They are going to be the ones managing social issues like diversity. They are going to be the ones who are going to have to figure out what kind of innovation we want. My sense is that while there will be a period of disruption, the ultimate result will be a change in the type of jobs we have–not necessarily fewer jobs.
How are we going to transition from a place where 350,000 truck drivers may be unemployed because trucks are going to be driving themselves? What are we going to do if the Hyperloop arrives and the housing crisis dissipates because suddenly we can go from Toronto to Montreal in thirty minutes? People are going to have to think through these problems, as robots are not going to solve them; these are human issues. And so the importance of talent–the importance of attracting the right people–is central to developing our economy, and as I said before, money follows message, but so do people. “Tell me why I should come there.”
The reality is that we, to some extent, are giving off a holier-than-thou attitude. We are too often comparing ourselves relative to someone else, but I think that sells Canada short. What we should be doing is being far more ambitious and bold in realizing our own potential, seizing the reins on our future, maximizing the abilities and capabilities of both established and new Canadians, and investing in foresight.
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