Discover more from The Line
Rahim Mohamed: We need to talk about Canada’s baby bust
Acknowledging the economic and social challenge of falling fertility rates can't be left entirely to bigots and cranks.
By: Rahim Mohamed
The so-called “Great Replacement Theory” resurfaced in the headlines this month when an essay touching on the theory was inexplicably awarded third prize in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta’s “Her Vision Inspires” essay contest and subsequently published on the assembly’s website. The piece, one of five essays submitted in response to a province-wide call for women between the ages of 17 and 25 to share their “unique vision for Alberta,” opens with the inauspicious line “[w]omen have a unique strength: our ability to give birth” and somehow manages to only go downhill from there, cramming an impressive amount of vocabulary commonly associated with white supremacism into a scant 500 words.
“While it is sadly popular nowadays to think that … Albertan children are unnecessary as we can import foreigners to replace ourselves,” continues the essay’s author, identified only as “S. Silver,” “this is a sickly [sic] mentality that amounts to a drive for cultural suicide. The first rule of health for any biological population is their ability to reproduce and pass along their way of life into the future.” The author goes on to pitch a number of ways to reward parents for their “reproductive service” to the province, one being to award medals to couples who have two or more children.
In addition to giving media outlets across the country yet another opportunity to trot out already overused production stills from The Handmaid’s Tale (hey journos, we get it!), the “Her Vision Inspires” fracas underscores the fact that views like the ones expressed in the prize-winning essay are becoming increasingly commonplace, both within Canada and elsewhere. What else could explain how the essay was vetted by two elected officials, and selected over two non-prize-winning entries (one focusing on combatting drug addiction and homelessness), and uploaded to the official website of the legislative assembly of Canada’s fourth-most-populous province — all, presumably, without anyone involved voicing any concerns about the essay’s contents?
To be clear, the blame for this mess lies with the adult gatekeepers who allowed the essay to enter the public domain and not the young author herself. It’s nevertheless deeply concerning that replacement theory is now so ubiquitous that it has been steeped into the minds of young adults like Miss Silver. One has to wonder how much of this essay is based on the author’s environment and upbringing and how much can be attributed to her independent discovery.
The Great Replacement Theory, also known as “white replacement theory” (or just “replacement theory”) is a racist and discredited conspiracy theory postulating that left-leaning elites are intentionally using the mass migration of non-whites, in concert with clandestine efforts to discourage white populations from reproducing, to alter the racial makeup of Western countries — a process that will eventually make whites a minoritized and marginalized population subgroup across the West. The theory has a number of influential evangelists here in Canada (notably freedom convoy organizer Pat King) and is at the heart of “globalist” conspiracy theories that implicate multinational entities like the United Nations, European Union, and the World Economic Forum. In the United States, where non-Hispanic whites are expected to become the minority by mid-century, mainstream figures like Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson and Hillbilly Elegy author turned United States Senate candidate J.D. Vance regularly invoke replacement theory in their rhetoric (Vance recently claimed that Democrats are trying to steal the next election by “bring[ing in] a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here”).
This past May, 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron opened fire in a grocery store located in a predominantly-Black neighbourhood in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people (all Black) and leaving behind a 180-page manifesto that described low white birth rates as a “crisis” that “will ultimately result in the complete racial and cultural replacement of the European people.” A subsequent criminal complaint alleged that Gendron’s writings included “statements that his motivation for the attack was to prevent Black people from replacing white people … and to inspire others to commit similar racially-motivated attacks.” The tragedy sparked a brief national conversation surrounding the Great Replacement Theory but was soon bumped from the headlines by the Uvalde elementary school shooting, which took place just 10 days later (mass shootings have an ever-shortening half-life in the American news cycle). The Buffalo shooting is the latest in a string of acts of mass violence inspired by the Great Replacement myth, dating back to the March 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Yet despite its irrefutable association with white supremacist violence, replacement theory appears to be catching on with everyday Canadians. According to a recent poll conducted by Abacus Data, 37 per cent of Canadians believe “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native born Canadians with immigrants who agree with their political views.” This shakes out to around 11 million people, including half of Conservative voters. (Soon-to-be Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre has strongly denounced white replacement theory, calling it “ugly and disgusting hate-mongering.” Poilievre is married to Venezuelan immigrant Anaida Poilievre [née Galindo] and the couple have two children together.)
Given the prevailing climate, any Canadian politician with an interest in self-preservation could be forgiven for wanting to stay as far away as possible from the topic of fertility. The only hitch is that Canada’s plunging birth rate will soon be an impossible problem to ignore.
After declining each year since 2015, Canada’s birth rate hit a record low of 1.40 births per woman (bpw) in 2020 (a recent survey of over 750 demographers identifies 1.4 bpw as a tipping point where governments should start to worry about fertility). Canada has long lagged the other major English-speaking countries and now finds itself solidly in the bottom half of the OECD, inching towards low fertility countries like Japan (1.36 bpw), Greece (1.35 bwp), and Italy (1.2 bpw). (The average birth rate among OECD countries was 1.59 bpw in 2020.)
Canadians need only look to the “Silver Tsunami” that is currently sweeping the world’s most infertile countries to see what’s in store for us in the coming decades: inverted population pyramids, sluggish economic growth, strains on already taxed health-care and pension systems. The 2016 Census revealed that Canadian seniors (65+) now outnumber children (14 and under) and the gap has only widened since then. Canada’s single-payer health-care system is already beginning to collapse, partially under the weight of an aging population.
For now, Canada’s high intake of immigrants is keeping our most daunting demographic challenges at bay. Despite having the third-lowest birth rate in the G7, Canada actually led the bloc in population growth between 2016 and 2021, welcoming some 1.44 million immigrants to our shores during that timeframe. Nearly 60 per cent of immigrants who enter Canada each year are skilled workers admitted through Immigration Canada’s ‘Economic’ stream. (By comparison, nearly two-thirds of recent immigrants to the United States were admitted through family sponsorship programs, a process commonly called “chain migration”).
The flow of skilled immigrants who can transition seamlessly into Canada’s most in-demand fields won’t last forever. University graduates and other skilled workers based in the Global South will likely find high-skilled jobs closer to home in the years to come as India, China and other industrializing countries continue to develop increasingly sophisticated knowledge economies. Moreover, many would-be immigrants to Canada will undoubtedly be wooed to more desirable locations as aging Western societies will eventually be forced to compete to attract foreign talent. Over the medium-to-long term, large-scale immigration is not a sustainable solution to the problems created by aging and low fertility.
The good news is that generous and well-designed family policies can be conducive to higher birth rates. Across the OECD, there is a clear association between fertility and family-related public spending; the organization’s most fertile countries invest upwards of 3 per cent of their annual GDPs on family benefits, providing parents with a mixture of cash payments, tax breaks, and subsidized child care. While Canada has made meaningful investments in family policy over the past 15 years (notably boosting direct payments to parents), it still falls short of the OECD average (2.34 per cent of GDP).
Part of the problem is that Canadian policymakers have struggled to present a compelling rationale for making sizeable investments in costly family policies. Take, for example, child care, which has bounced on and off the federal government’s radar for the past four decades. In 2004, Paul Martin trumpeted the developmental aspects of child care, armed with the buzzwords “early childhood education” and a plethora of longitudinal studies from the United States. Seventeen years later, after the Quebec experiment failed to validate this premise, Justin Trudeau pitched $10-a-day child care as an essential component of the “she-covery” from a pandemic that disproportionately affected working mothers. Less than a year into Trudeau’s third mandate, child care already appears to be lost in the shuffle as the federal government’s focus has shifted to dental care. The experience of early adopter British Columbia, which has consistently lagged behind targets for the creation of $10-a-day spaces, shows that a national system can only succeed with the total buy-in of both Ottawa and the provinces. Tying child care to our fertility woes could help policymakers generate the political will that is clearly absent right now.
One thing that’s for certain is that no progress will be made until we first acknowledge our flatlining birth rate as a serious challenge that, if left unaddressed, will lead to hardship down the road. Politicians and other public figures should, at the very least, be able to talk about fertility without having to fend off accusations of racist dog-whistling. It’s high time to ditch the played-out Handmaid’s Tale references and start a serious national conversation about our birth rate and its implications for our country’s future. Perhaps we can start with an essay contest.
Rahim Mohamed is freelance writer based in Calgary. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has taught at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC) and Centre College (Danville, Kentucky).
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org