National Column: Influx and integration key

by Chantal Hebert

The population of every province west of Ontario is growing at a faster rate than the national average. The reverse is true of the five provinces east of Ontario. In the case of Atlantic Canada, the demographic shortfall is acute. New Brunswick’s population shrank between 2011 and 2016 and the population of Nova Scotia’s increased by a mere fraction of a percentage point.

The region is in the eye of a perfect storm. Its population is aging; it is losing people to more prosperous provinces; it does not attract nearly enough immigrants to make up the difference. This is not a trend that will be reversed overnight, if ever. It is not happening in isolation from the country’s federal dynamics.

For the first time this year, the tradition of giving one of the nine seats on the Supreme Court to a judge from Atlantic Canada was called into question. It will not be the last time. The region is down to less than 10 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. That proportion will continue to diminish as new seats are added to reflect demographic growth elsewhere in the country.

Going forward there might be a temptation to fight Atlantic Canada’s battles in the Senate, the house of Parliament where its weight is artificially maintained. With less than 7 per cent of the population, the region is guaranteed 24 seats in the upper house. Ditto for the West, whose four provinces are now home to one in three Canadians. A makeup that so distorts the demographics of modern Canada does little to enhance the moral legitimacy of the unelected Senate to act as a chamber of sober second thought.

That is not the only politically related takeaway from the 2016 census numbers released on Wednesday.

Over the past five years, immigration has accounted for two-thirds of Canada’s population growth. Based on current trends, it will account for 80 per cent in less than 20 years. It will be hard for a political party to win government without policies and a lineup that reflect the country’s diversity.

Flirting with anti-immigration sentiment may be a winning formula within parties whose membership is reminiscent of a less diverse federation but it stands to be a recipe for disaster in 21st-century Canada. There is no turning back the clock on the country’s diversity.

That is particularly, if not exclusively, true for Quebec’s nationalist opposition parties. The failure to make inroads in the allophone communities that account for most of the province’s demographic growth could give the Liberal party a quasi-permanent lease on power. That failure – compounded by a decade of tone-deaf politics on the issue of religious accommodation – dooms any hope the Parti QuÈbÈcois might have of holding a winning referendum on Quebec independence.

As long as the allophone vote was concentrated on the island of Montreal, a Quebec party could realistically hope to win an election without reaching out to newer Quebecers. But now the mix of suburban Quebec, which holds the key to electoral success, is changing.

Quebec’s population has grown at a slower rate than the Canadian average for four decades. At 3 per cent, it is still at a relatively healthy level. Quebec is home to almost twice as many people as British Columbia. It is not about to lose its place as Canada’s second-most-populous province. Nor, for that matter, is Ontario’s demographic edge on its sister provinces about to disappear. Central Canada will continue to be the federation’s political powerhouse.

That being said, only a steady influx of immigrants stands between Quebec and the anemic demographic growth of the Atlantic region. The province’s future as a French-speaking society rests on its success at keeping and integrating those immigrants into its mainstream.

Quebec’s collective preoccupation with ensuring that French endures and thrives on the North American landscape will continue to distinguish the province’s politics from those in the rest of the country.

But on just about everything else the issues that matter to an increasingly urban, increasingly diverse Quebec are more similar to those that preoccupy the majority of voters in Ontario and in western Canada than at any other time in the federation’s modern history.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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