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Canada needs a northern immigration strategy
Canada’s modern approach to immigration makes two capital mistakes. First, it presumes that immigration this century remains primarily a “southern” Canadian phenomenon — that is, that most people will invariably move to southern cities such as Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
Second, it presumes that Canadian immigration should turn almost exclusively on economic demand.
In fact, reports of continuous, aggressive ice-melting in the Arctic this summer — part of a long-term, accelerating trend — only serve to confirm that Canada will need many more people in the North in the coming decades.
In other words, Canadian immigration and migration this century will be increasingly “northern” in character, and will be driven more by national strategy and geopolitics than by traditional economic considerations.
The settlement of our southern border in the late 19th and early 20th centuries presages what’s to come. Contrary to present-day mythology about us having populated the 49th parallel because it is comparatively “warm” (has anyone been too Ottawa in wintertime?) or because most of our trade runs with our American neighbours, the original logic of Canada’s southern settlement was primarily military in nature.
The United States was the natural enemy of Canada, and Canada’s population followed the line of fortifications along the Canada-U. S. border, supported by rail lines eventually spanning the entire expanse of our huge country, along an east-west axis.
Economics followed the strategic logic; not the reverse. And if we are to survive as a country for the balance of this century and have any hope of managing the enormous northern and Arctic real estate that will be exposed and, to be sure, contested by virtue of the accelerating Arctic ice-melt, then economics will again have to follow a strategic logic.
But do we Canadians even remember how to do strategy? I have my doubts.
There are two Arctic giants this century, living, whether we like it or not, in increasingly tight strategic juxtaposition: Canada and Russia.
On the Russian side of the Arctic ledger, there are some two million people residing in the Russian Far North, with all of the supporting (albeit aging) infrastructure and expertise commended by such demographic mass. Between 200,000 and 300,000 people live in each of leading northern cities like Murmansk, Norilsk and Yakutsk. The vast Siberian belt underlying the Russian Arctic has a population just shy of 40 million people.
On the Canadian side of the ledger, across all three of our Northern territories, we have a total population of about 115,000. Below the territories, across all 10 provinces, I calculate the supporting “quasi-northern” population of the country, from Fort Nelson to Churchill and Kapuskasing, to be less than two million.
Moreover, of the people in the northern territories and our quasi-north, I calculate that less than 1 per cent are actively thinking about or working on our northern border and its management; the rest are, for reasons understandable, southward-oriented.
To be blunt, we will not be able to protect, control and manage the north, including in environmental terms, with such paltry demographic resources. Even if we do not see Russia or other Arctic countries as necessarily a future threat, we do not have anywhere close to enough people in — and thinking professionally about — the north to sustain serious bilateral or multilateral processes about how to manage the north in our interests and on our terms.
Fortunately, the Fathers of Confederation pointed the way forward. If they succeeded in populating our continent-sized country from east to west to manage the southern border, then our leaders today and tomorrow must move with urgency to deliberately expand our demographic imagination and footprint well beyond the major urban centres of today — along a northward vector.
Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver may well be big or even huge cities later this century, but national survival and success, in strategic and economic terms alike, will soon require that there be big cities and lots of people in Canada’s Far North, supported by large urban centres in the northern halves of most of our provinces. The names of some of these 21st century northern Canadian cities have, in many cases, yet to be invented.
Irvin Studin is president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, and editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief Magazine.