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Canada Faces Clash Of 2 Core Values: Environment And Immigration

03/15/2017 12:51 EDT | Updated 03/15/2017 12:51 EDT

David Suzuki, the eminence grise of Canadian environmentalism, got in some political hot water back in the fall of 2013, when he declared that Canada is "full" and needs to cut back on immigration.

"Our immigration policy is disgusting," he told France's L'Express newspaper. "We plunder southern countries by depriving them of future leaders, and we want to increase our population to support economic growth. It's crazy!"

That got a quick and vitriolic response from Canada's then-immigration minister, Jason Kenney, who reflected many people's opinion when he called Suzuki's views "toxic and irresponsible."

david suzuki

Scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki seen in 2011 in Melbourne, Australia, sparked controversy in 2013 with anti-immigration comments. (Photo: Marianna Massey/Sustainable Living Festival via Getty Images)

Three years later, several advisers to Finance Minister Bill Morneau provoked outrage and worry (and some support) when they called for Canada to increase its immigration rate so that the country -- currently at 35 million people -- will have a population of 100 million people by 2100.

Though their argument that Canada will need to grow its population to remain "relevant" in the 21st century struck many as sensible, the idea of a Canada that large made people recoil in fear.

If the immigration patterns that have existed in recent decades continue through the 21st century (and there's no reason to believe they won't), a Canada of 100 million people will mean a Toronto area of 33 million people -- slightly smaller than all of Canada today. It would also mean a Vancouver of some 9.8 million people, just slightly smaller than London is today.

toronto traffic

Toronto is caught between government policy to grow the population and government policy to reduce sprawl. (Photo: Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Yet Suzuki's vision of shutting down immigration and Morneau's advisers' call for a massive spike in population are two extreme ends of an argument that Canada is having, seemingly without knowing that it's having it.

Two core Canadian values are coming into conflict: on the one side is the preservation of our rich ecological heritage, and on the other the country's long-running policy of economic growth through immigration.

The time is quickly coming when we as a nation won't be able to ignore this conflict. From carbon taxes to oil pipelines to soaring house prices, this insidious trend is now beginning to affect daily life in Canada, in small ways and large.

In Quebec, the provincial government recently objected when federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna made an unprecedented move to reduce the size of a housing development in Montreal's South Shore suburbs, in order to protect an endangered species of frog.

Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of rapidly growing Calgary, has been working to move the city away from unbridled suburban sprawl. But, like in many cities, sustainable development initiatives like mass transit are facing grassroots opposition from NIMBY groups.

In one instance, Nenshi cancelled public meetings on the construction of a bus transitway after what he called "misinformation" from a grassroots group prompted angry outbursts at a town hall. It even included "incidents of physical assault on City of Calgary staff."

nenshi

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has faced resistance to some of his plans to reduce urban sprawl, (Photo: Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)

But those issues pale in comparison to the Greater Toronto Area, where residents' lives are being very visibly driven by this clash. The Ontario government has been working for a decade to slow urban sprawl in order to protect farmland and wilderness areas. The province has put a Greenbelt around the metro area, instituting a hard limit on the amount of developable land around Canada's largest city.

According to Frank Clayton, a senior researcher at Ryerson University's Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, anti-sprawl policies are responsible for a quarter to a third of the rapid rise in Greater Toronto's house prices in recent years. With fewer and fewer detached homes being built, the average single-family home now sells for more than $1.5 million.

Politicians and planners have "forgotten about the economics," Clayton told the Globe and Mail. "It's all about the environment."

But Canada's federal government has not forgotten the economics. The Liberals are planning to admit 300,000 immigrants in 2017, the same as 2016, and higher than the roughly 250,000 permitted annually during the previous Conservative government.

Today, Canada has more reason than ever to take in newcomers: as the population grows older, the working-age cohort in Canada has begun to shrink as a share of the population.

Working Canadians are forecast to fall from around 69 per cent of Canada's population today to 60 per cent by 2030. Meanwhile, seniors will go from being around 27 per cent of the population today to nearly 40 per cent by 2045.

That will put a great deal of pressure on Canada's social safety net.

population projections canada

But then, what about the urban sprawl governments are trying to stop? Toronto's population is projected to rise to 9.1 million people by 2040, an increase of more than three million over today. That's the equivalent of a city the size of Seattle that has to be accommodated, somehow, within Toronto.

Immigration targets and anti-sprawl policies clearly work against one another. But so does immigration and the carbon emissions reduction targets to which Canada has committed itself.

When an immigrant moves from a poorer, low-emissions country to Canada, their carbon footprint rises dramatically, often as much as tenfold, due to more intensive use of energy in Canada. That increases the total carbon emissions worldwide and, as many climate activists have pointed out, makes it harder for Canada to meet its carbon targets.

While moving to Canada may help many people build an affluent life for themselves, there is little doubt it's bad for the environment.

carbon cost of immigration

Canada's population is projected to grow to 41 million by 2030, from 35 million today -- an increase of 17 per cent in 13 years. This means that, to meet the 2030 carbon targets the country has committed to, each Canadian will have to reduce their own emissions 17 per cent more than if the population was stable.

So does this mean we have to choose one or the other? A healthy economy or a healthy environment?

Not necessarily. As others have argued before, the negative environmental impact of immigration can be mitigated somewhat: switching to electric cars, improving home and office energy efficiency, and increasing recycling can all soften the environmental blow. In fact, a concerted effort to meet the 2030 climate targets could reduce that huge jump in immigrants' carbon footprints when they arrive.

justin trudeau paris climate accord

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signs the Paris Agreement on climate change, Friday, April 22, 2016 at U.N. headquarters in New York City. The governing Liberals adopted the previous Conservative government's target of cutting emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels, no later than 2030. (Photo: Associated Press/Mark Lennihan)

So clearly these conflicting prerogatives can be brought together to work towards a common cause. But today, that's not happening. These issues are being treated as separate matters.

Part of it may be fear of touching the immigration issue; there is a legitimate concern that anti-immigrant forces could use the environmental argument as a rhetorical bludgeon against migrants.

And there is also a palpable fear -- especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan -- that meeting climate targets could cost Canada's energy-heavy economy plenty of jobs.

But ignoring this conflict means allowing it to grow larger, and become more problematic. This country is growing, economically and demographically, and the clock towards 2030 is ticking.

If we have any hope of finding compromises that work, we as a nation have to take that first step they always tell you about in Alcoholics Anonymous, and admit we have a problem.

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