Chris Selley: We're not even close to ready for the population growth we're getting

This isn’t an issue that some backroom genius can spin away. It’s visceral for everyone, from aspiring homeowners to long-time renters to would-be immigrants

New population and demographic projections form Statistics Canada, out this week, have been noticed mostly for their predicting rapidly increasing ethnic diversity in a rapidly increasing number of places — i.e., not just big cities. “London (Ont.) is going to, increasingly, look like Toronto,” one immigration expert told the London Free Press, citing Windsor, Ont. as another example.

Generally speaking, this is the correct way to look at these data. While the overall population projection of 47.7 million Canadians by 2041 might sound big, it represents only slightly more than the average rate of growth we have seen in recent years. We have certainly welcomed many more per annum in decades past. It’s relatively ethnically homogenous cities that will likely see the biggest changes, purely in the sense of seeing more people who aren’t white, and that’s an interesting phenomenon.

London, Ont. is currently around 21-per-cent “racialized,” according to census data. By 2041, it’s projected to be 32 per cent. Windsor’s viz-min population is projected rise from 27.5 per cent to 45 per cent. It’s even more remarkable outside of Ontario. The overall population of Saskatoon is projected to rise by 33 per cent; the visible-minority population, by 122 per cent. Calgary will be a majority non-white city by 2041, according to these projections.

I have seen no coverage that presents this as a problem — not even from Quebec, which is hopelessly consumed with linguistic and ethnic political diversions and where StatCan projections present a different kind of scenario: Smaller cities like Trois-Rivières and Saguenay are projected to see their visible-minority populations rise even as their total populations decline, and not just by a little. It’s nice to live in a country where immigration is seen mostly as a rational and uncontroversial response to low birth rates, a consequently aging population, and all the critical human-resources needs we are seeing as a result — especially at the moment, and especially in health care. The numbers offer serious food for thought, however, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, where the housing markets are crazily unaffordable to begin with and where Ontario’s growth will be super-concentrated. The province’s population is projected to grow 30 per cent by 2041; the Greater Toronto Area’s, by 52 per cent. That’s when you see the elephant in the room. He looks angry. He’s pawing the dirt. Where are all these new Canadians supposed to live? Queen’s Park says it needs to build roughly 1.5 million homes over 10 years to meet forthcoming demand. A recent paper from the Smart Prosperity Institute at the University of Ottawa endorsed that figure — endorsed it as necessary, that is, not necessarily as doable. The last time Ontario finished even half as many homes as that over a 10-year stretch was in 1982. There are mighty forces arrayed against building even that quickly again, not least the people who already live near where all those new homes and people will have to go. Moreover, the authors of the Smart Prosperity Institute study observe, that 1.5-million figure “greatly exceeds the forecasts that underpin the (provincial) growth plan.” We know people are willing to commute long distances to work in rich, important cities like Toronto. And regional public transit is improving here at an under-appreciated rate. But it’s still awfully sad by global standards: An hour and 40 minutes to Union Station from Barrie (105 kilometres by road), four hours from London (190 kilometres by road). But that spillover effect from would-be Torontonians living in the suburbs — and beyond — just makes life more and more unaffordable for everyone. There is certainly much room for NIMBY municipalities to get the hell out of the way. Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has proposed forcing them to relax zoning laws if they want federal infrastructure funding, and it’s a good idea. But even if came to pass, is the homebuilding industry capable of ramping up construction that much, that fast? Most experts say no. You can’t just clone plumbers or carpenters when you need them. The number of people working in construction-related trades in Toronto grew by 10 per cent from 2001 to 2019, according to Statistics Canada. The overall population grew by one-third. It’s often a fool’s errand to predict future labour market needs, but this is a pretty safe one: Whatever governments can do in the coming years to nudge young people into the skilled trades will likely pay off big-time down the line for everyone. If nothing else, it’s a political imperative — or it certainly ought to be. This isn’t something any backroom genius can spin away. It’s visceral for everyone, from aspiring millennial and Gen-Z homeowners to would-be immigrants to long-time renters like me. If it weren’t for rent control — which is bad policy, but a gold mine for people like me — I might celebrate my 50th birthday in a basement apartment. There are worse fates in life. But that’s sure not what I had in mind. Younger voters seem much less inclined to be sanguine about it, having grown up in a culture where home ownership is often (falsely) portrayed as a bare minimum achievement for productive adulthood. It’s often said nowadays that Canada can hardly do anything right, get anything right. But when you live in a Canadian city, you know one thing for absolute certain: There are people just lined up to erect new houses — high-rises, mid-rises, whatever you want. For God’s sake, just get out of the way. Everyone who’s important wins.

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