Virginia localities by median age in 2019. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

Scientists compare the results of their experiments to a control group.

The problem with politics is we usually don’t have a control group; we trade parties back and forth with enough frequency that it’s often hard to say with complete certainty whether this set of policies worked or this set failed – there are always explanations and excuses for why something worked out the way it did.

That’s why I like Canada so much. It offers a good point of compare/contrast with the United States on many policies. Here’s a country much like the United States in history (except for that part about the Revolution and the Civil War) and culture (except for French-speaking Quebec). We share a continent; our economies are intertwined; we consume so much Canadian culture that we often don’t realize it (from Justin Bieber to William Shatner). For many policies, we won’t find a closer comparison.

That’s why this headline caught my eye: “Canada’s population growth at highest level in more than 30 years.”

That stands in direct contrast to this competing headline: “U.S. population grew 0.1% in 2021, slow rate since founding of the nation.”

Or, in the more dramatic headline of The Atlantic: “Why U.S. population growth is collapsing.”

We’ve looked before at why population growth in the United States has slowed so much. The short version: Our birth rate has dropped, and we have an aging population weighted toward baby boomers, so births barely outnumber deaths.

This isn’t a sufficient answer, though. The fertility rate in the United States – the technical term – is 1.66 births per woman. That’s below what demographers clinically call the “replacement rate.” The birth rate in the United States has been below the replacement rate since 1971 with two small exceptions in 2006 and 2007.

However the rate in Canada is even lower – presently 1.43.

So if Canada is posting its highest population growth in 30 years, it’s not because of a sudden baby boom brought on by all those cold nights. (Tonight’s forecast calls for a low of 36 in Roanoke but -9 in Edmonton.) It’s because of something else. That something else is immigration – and that brings us to the real point of compare/contrast with our northern neighbor.

The subject of immigration has been become highly politicized in the United States – sometimes in ugly, xenophobic ways – to the extent that the two parties can no longer really talk about immigration in any kind of rational way. That has not been the case in Canada. In Canada, there’s been broad agreement between liberals and conservatives that the country needs more immigration. They’ve disagreed about the details, as parties do, and Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberal Party has been more enthusiastic about immigration than the rival Conservative Party. However, when Conservative Stephen Harper was prime minister, Canada set a record for the number of immigrants, with 2011 seeing the highest number in 57 years. Trudeau, who has been in power since 2015, has ratcheted those numbers even higher. Canada recently announced that it plans to aims to bring 500,000 immigrants a new over the next three years — for a total of 1.5 million. “This plan would see Canada welcome about eight-times the number of permanent residents each year – per population – than the UK, and four-times more than its southern neighbor, the United States,” the BBC reports. In Canada, both parties see the same numbers – an aging population with fewer young adults to pay taxes into the programs that support seniors – and come to the same conclusion, that immigration is the way to fix that. The United States suffers the same demographic challenges that Canada does but has yet to grasp the numerical reality.

True, the United States does confront an issue that Canada does not: We have people migrating northward from Latin America who simply walk across our southern border. Except for a brief surge after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Canada does not have that problem. (For what it’s worth, Canada’s immigration is more weighted toward Asia than American immigration is. The biggest source of immigrants in Canada is India, which accounts for 32% of the newcomers, followed by China at 8%, the Philippines at 4.3%, Nigeria at 3.8% and France at 3.2%. Curiously, the United States is Canada’s sixth-biggest source of immigrants, at 3%. But the only Latin American country that shows up in their Top 10 is Brazil at seventh place with 2.9%. By contrast, Mexico is the biggest source of immigrants to the U.S. – 25% of the total, followed by India at 6%, China at 5%, the Philippines at 4.5% and El Salvador at 3%.) 

“Immigration” is a multifaceted issue that we Americans often conflate into a single thing because we like our issues simple. Yes, border security is a problem and certainly that overlaps with other immigration issues, but it’s not the entirety of the issue. The so-called “worker shortage” may be starting to put some pressure on politicians to confront some of the demographic realities. (See my earlier column for more discussion of why the worker shortage is here to stay.) When Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, spoke in Danville in September as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series, he appealed to business and political leaders to figure out a way to address the issue. Still, it’s easier for politicians to showboat than to deal with more complicated matters of policy. This is classic “Hamilton,” specifically the song “Cabinet Battle #1,” in which George Washington advises Alexander Hamilton: “Ah, winning was easy, young man, governing’s harder.” Here, though, is a detail that perhaps every aspirant for federal office ought to be forced to address: The Congressional Budget Office says that come 2043, the U.S. population will start to shrink – absent some unforeseen baby boom or increased immigration.

For today, let’s set aside all that and look more closely at the effect of Canada’s immigration policies, because those hold lessons for those of us in Southwest and Southside Virginia.

Just as the population in rural areas in the United States tends to be older, the same holds true in Canada. Immigration, though, is making some of its most rural provinces younger. New Brunswick is Canada’s second oldest province, with a median age last year of 46.2, which makes it older than any American state. By contrast, Virginia’s is 38.4. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported last month that “New Brunswick grew larger in 2022 and for the first time in sixty years more youthful, as the province’s recent surge in population continued to accelerate.” Now New Brunswick’s median age is 45.7. That’s still old, in relative terms, but, economically speaking, the trend is a good one. Rural areas across Virginia lament the lack of young adults. Here’s a rural area that’s fixing the problem. “Growth has been officially encouraged and welcomed by the province as a solution to a variety of problems, including what has been an aging population and growing labor shortages,” the CBC reports. And, realistically, that growth is from immigration; 94% of Canada’s population growth is coming from people moving into the country.

The United States and Canada conduct their censuses at different times so it’s tricky to compare growth rates too closely, but some broad conclusions are possible: Every Canadian province that borders the United States has a faster growth rate than the American state just across the border. Should we wonder why? Our fastest-growing border state in the 2020 census was North Dakota, which saw its population increase by 1.48%. Manitoba, to its north, grew by 11% during roughly the same time; Saskatchewan was up 7.4%.

The relevance to us: What if rural America embraced immigration the way Canada has? I see one rural community after another across Virginia trying to figure out how to attract more residents, particularly young adults. Here’s an obvious solution that no one is talking about. Rural communities in the United States ought to be clamoring for more immigration. While New Brunswick’s median age of 46.2 – now down to 45.7 – might make it an old place compared to other Canadian provinces or any American state, the province is still younger than most localities in rural Virginia, where median ages top out at 59.3 in Highland County. Wouldn’t they like to grow their populations some – and get an influx of younger adults at the same time?

I understand why Texas might feel overwhelmed by a surge of migrants coming across the Rio Grande to seek asylum, but instead of the Republican governor there busing migrants to Washington and New York – an attempt to embarrass Democratic politicians – why isn’t he sending them to his own rural communities that are suffering population losses? Why aren’t governors in rural states offering to take these people in? Yes, yes, there are details aplenty I’m skating past here – the agencies that provide services generally aren’t in rural areas, for instance. But the big-picture point remains the same: We have rural communities that want to grow. Here’s an easy way to do it. Why aren’t those communities pushing for policies to encourage more immigration? 

It’s easy to blame politics – left vs. right – but we don’t see those politics in Canada. New Brunswick, the province that just saw its median age drop for the first time since 1961, has a conservative government.

Nova Scotia, another rural province, just launched a program to attract more international students to its colleges – and then persuade them to stay after graduation. Furthermore, Nova Scotia’s health minister – the equivalent of a state secretary of health – declared that only immigration can solve the province’s nursing shortage, according to the CBC. “We know we’re never going to be able to grow the workforce we need right now – we have a significant gap,” Michelle Thompson said, according to the CBC. So that’s why Nova Scotia is embracing immigration. Nova Scotia also has a conservative government.

Saskatchewan, another rural province, has set specific targets for population growth and has a provincial immigration minister charged with helping achieve them – the equivalent of an American governor having a Cabinet post devoted to immigration. And, yes, you guessed it, Saskatchewan has a conservative government. For that prairie province to take such a position is the same as our North Dakota having a state cabinet position dedicated to promoting immigration, yet such a thing would be unheard of south of the border. Why is that?

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin is rightly concerned that more people are moving out of Virginia than are moving in. He’s got parts of the state where population declined over the past decade. When he introduced his energy plan recently in Lynchburg, Youngkin took the stage to the strains of the ’70s hit “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive – a Canadian band. Youngkin could help out the parts of the state that voted most strongly for him by lifting something else from Canada. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.