As world population tops 7 billion, Canada depends on immigration to grow

·National Affairs Contributor

The seven billionth human being was born somewhere in the world on Monday, likely in the developing world according to experts.

UN officials aren't designating any particular baby the official seven-billionth person, so no nice prize package for the family.

There's a chance, though, that child may grow up to emigrate to Canada, which needs newcomers to help maintain an economically necessary population-growth rate in the face of declining birth rates here.

Canada had 3.5 million people in 1867, the year of Confederation, according to federal government figures. It took until 1910 to double that figure, despite the fact more provinces had been added in the West.

It doubled again to 14 million by 1951 as the post-war baby boom gathered speed and reached 31 million in 2001. But the rate of growth had begun slowing perceptibly by the early 1990s.

So in the last decade, Canada's population is estimated to have grown by just over three million, to about 34.1 million, with immigration playing an increasingly important role. Less than half - about 1.2 million - was a result of Canadian births over deaths.

Statistics Canada's historical numbers show distinct spikes in population growth rates, the highest between 1900 and 1910 (2.8 per cent annually), when waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe helped people the West. The baby boom, coupled with a new wave of immigration from war-ravaged Europe, pushed the rate to 2.7 per cent between 1950-60.

It has not been close since. The growth rate between 2000 and 2010 increased slightly to 1.1 per cent from one per cent the previous decade but in the next 50 years, Ottawa predicts an average annual growth rate of 0.9 per cent. That's barely enough to maintain Canada's current population.

By contract, Afghanistan's population has grown consistently at a rate of 2.8 to 2.9 per cent in the last half-dozen years despite a decade of war, according to World Bank figures.

Australia, a country similar to Canada in its mix of native-born and immigrant population, grew at a rate of 1.7 per cent last year and 2.1 per cent in 2009. And our southern neighbours, despite having a higher birth rate than Canada, has seen its overall population grow by less than one per cent in the last few years.

China, although it dwarfs most countries in total population, has had a growth rate of around half a per cent for much of the last decade.

The country with the highest growth rate? Qatar, a tiny Middle East oil sheikhdom, with 9.6 per cent last year. That's down from 18.6 per cent in 2007, a swing that's probably due to a relatively small population of 1.4 million, many of them foreign workers.

The Canadian replacement fertility rate - the number of children that women of one generation need to have to replace their generation, is below the 2.1 children per woman considered necessary for developed countries.

The rate peaked at the height of the baby boom at just under four, before beginning to plunge in the early '60s. By 2001, it was down to 1.5 children per woman before climbing slightly in the later part of the previous decade.

It's one reason that high levels of immigration have bi-partisan support in Ottawa, though the parties argue over what kinds of immigrants Canada should accept.

Net migration - the difference between the number of people coming to Canada and those emigrating from it made up 7.1 per cent of its 11.4 per cent population growth between 1996 and 2006, topping G7 countries. In the last decade, Canada welcomed almost two million newcomers.

It's worth noting, though, that current annual immigration numbers of just over 250,000 are well below the 350,000-400,000 Canada was absorbing annually in the early years of the 20th century. It bottomed out at near zero during the Depression and Second World War before climbing to current levels.

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