August 4, 2023

When Canada’s population hit the 40 million mark earlier this summer, it was celebrated as a milestone and a “signal that Canada remains a dynamic and welcoming country”, in the words of the country’s chief statistician. The Washington Post, among other foreign observers, cited this as evidence that “Canada is booming like it never has before”. It failed to mention, however, the recent closure of Roxham Road on the New York-Quebec border, an entry point for many thousands of irregular refugee border crossings since 2017.

These two policies — the population-growth plan and the border-crossing closure — may seem antithetical, but they are very much related. Together, they illustrate Ottawa’s distinctive approach to immigration. Notwithstanding the progressive rhetoric of its leaders, Canada has actually been quite proactive at restricting most uncontrolled migration through its “bureaucratic wall”, while ensuring through a highly selective strategy (which includes the lauded “points system”) that the majority of the newcomers who do arrive through controlled channels are, relatively speaking, well-off, well-educated and hailing from middle-class backgrounds.


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In this way, Canada has been able to scoop up “the best and the brightest” from all over the world, which explains why immigration has historically always been a popular policy. In fact, this arrangement has been so politically stable that a viable anti-immigration party has yet to emerge at the national level, bucking the trend in other Western democracies.

Yet there are reasons to believe that a reckoning is in store — though not because Canadians’ cultural attitudes to immigrants have soured, as has happened in most European nations. Indeed, they are more likely to think of surgeons rather than Salafists when they look at who’s coming through their migration streams. If a countermovement against the status quo is to come, it will stem from a single factor: there will be nowhere for newcomers to live.

This may sound like a strange thing to say for the world’s second largest country by landmass, but most Canadians live in a handful of cities and, amid a global housing crisis, Canada ranks as among the absolute worst nations in the developed world for affordability. It has the highest household debt and, astonishingly, the lowest number of housing units per 1,000 people in the G7. Needless to say, the housing bubble has greatly reduced Canadians’ quality of life and made already pricey metropolises such as Toronto and Vancouver impossible to live in for those who are not already solidly affluent. And it shows: homelessness has exploded and sprawling tent cities are now a distressingly common sight. With circumstances as dire as this, how did policymakers in Ottawa figure it would be a good idea to welcome 1.5 million new residents by 2025?

A big part of the answer is that it’s all going according to plan. For the main overriding (if unsayable) goal of Canadian policymaking across all levels of government is to do everything possible to boost real estate values and rental prices rapidly and radically for the benefit of established homeowners and investors — and to the detriment of everyone else.

This cleavage, a primarily economic rather than a cultural or identitarian one, pits older home-owning Canadians from the Boomer and Gen X cohorts against struggling Millennials and Gen Zs; landlords against renters; long-settled immigrants against those fresh-off-the-boat: in other words, the insiders against the outsiders.

And it is clear where the loyalties of Canada’s political classes lay. The Nimby orthodoxy favoured by the insiders is evident in everything from steep development charges baked into municipal regulations — which make the cost of building houses prohibitive — to lazy, sticking-plaster solutions such as rent relief schemes, which simply funnel money into landlords’ pockets while doing nothing to address the underlying problems of housing undersupply. Once viewed in relation to this out-in-the-open conspiracy — the Great Canadian Racket — the government’s immigration targets, as well as its student visa policy, start to make sense.

For this purpose, Canada specifically wants prospective immigrants who are financially endowed, not penniless refugees; and it is able to draw in those candidates through its selective policy controls, whether they’re coming in as immigrants or as international students with enough funds to cover exorbitant rents and tuition fees.

The plight of international students is particularly tragic. Bright-eyed applicants to Canadian institutions from India and elsewhere are lured in with promises of a first-world education, only to be suckered into overpriced degrees while being cooped into horrendous housing conditions and forced to compete for menial gig work. Though Canada is not alone in experiencing this kind of steady glut of foreign entrants to its universities, it’s been conspicuous in its refusal to consider the extent of the exploitation involved — unlike in Britain, for instance, where authorities seem at least to have acknowledged the issue. While Canada has set about poaching high-skilled foreign workers from the US, a Toronto international student was found living under a bridge. Ottawa’s response to this and other horror stories seems to be: come on in!

This careless approach of importing boatloads of wealth-bearing immigrants to juice up the economic growth numbers, driving up rents for everyone and lowering the cost of labour, has been referred to by one housing policy commentator as “human quantitative easing”, an appropriately Orwellian-sounding name. Canada’s embrace of it has led to a perverse contradiction whereby its official monetary policy — namely, successive rate hikes to tame inflation (meaning increasingly costly mortgage payments for new homeowners) — is being offset by its unofficial “Human QE” policy, which, of course, exerts an inflationary effect.

If there is one ray of hope, it is that the immigrants and students themselves are beginning to rise up. Because of the genteel, middle-class character of many of these newcomers, they often have amour-propre — a keen sense of one’s own worth. The words of a Punjabi architect who decided to move back home are emblematic: “I respect myself too much to stay [in Canada].”

The ruling Liberals have all but abdicated moral responsibility on the issue, with Trudeau going from lofty rhetoric about “housing is a human right” to declaring that “housing isn’t a primary federal responsibility”. And though carrying a kernel of truth at an abstract, technical level, his words nonetheless struck many as offensively tone-deaf. After all, Trudeau’s willingness to confront the provinces on issues such as carbon pricing merely highlights his studied indifference on housing.

This negligent stance is reinforced by members of the government caucus, such as ex-housing minister, Ahmed Hussen, who recently insisted that housing “is not a political issue” after purchasing his second rental unit; and Vancouver MP Taleeb Noormohamed, who made millions buying and flipping houses. In any event, the Trudeau Liberals are cruising towards a well-earned defeat at the polls.

The bad news for Canadians is that the alternative, the Conservative Party of Pierre Poilievre, is no better. Much like Hussen and Noormohamed, Poilievre is a card-carrying member of the investor-rentier oligarchy (private investment is, of course, key to funding more construction but this class has gone about it in all the wrong ways, presiding over the hyper-financialisation of new and existing supply). The Conservative “plan” is apparently based on pushing cities to build more homes with carrots and sticks; and though phrased in colourful populist language (“Fire the gatekeepers!”), it is essentially a weak mirror image of Trudeau’s feckless initiatives. Poilievre’s bluster about fining cities that fail to comply — which Ottawa may not even have the power to do — would almost certainly just result in municipalities retaliating by jacking up fees and charges even more to pay the new fines.

Furthermore, Poilievre shows no sign of breaking with the status quo on immigration, refusing to contradict Trudeau’s immigration targets. There are two possible reasons for this, both of which could be true. The first is that Poilievre fears being tarred as “Trump North” and doesn’t want to risk losing the Conservatives’ long-cultivated relationship with multicultural communities (the subject of an admiring 2014 essay by Rishi Sunak) — even though the young people in those same communities are suffering just as much from housing scarcity and would greatly benefit from a slowdown in the rate of new arrivals. The second is that Poilievre is an anti-statist libertarian who worships at the altar of Milton Friedman, the US monetarist who helped make the case for immigration maximalism, when he argued it would supercharge growth and kill the welfare state. It could just be that Poilievre genuinely believes, on ideological grounds, that such heedless immigration targets are a good idea.

Canada faces a perfect storm: a population bomb and a housing crunch, both the consciously engineered products of national policy. Staving off disaster will require heroic leadership to chart needed course corrections on housing, immigration and student visas, while acknowledging the hard political trade-offs that need to happen: the insiders must incorporate the interests and demands of the outsiders, or trigger a complete social breakdown. In the past, Canada’s storied Laurentian elite excelled at this kind of astute brokerage politics and built a nation with it, but their courage and vision have now given way to the reign of cowardice and mediocrity.