Toronto Star

Jul. 17, 01:00 EDT

Boosting birth rate not option, PM says

Aging population best addressed with immigration

Tonda MacCharles
Toronto Star

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said yesterday his government will not adopt any policy changes to encourage Canadians to have more children but it would try to increase the number of immigrants in a bid to meet the needs of a rapidly aging population.

"We see that the population is not growing as fast as it should," Chrétien acknowledged in response to census reports that the birth rate is tumbling as the largest demographic slice of society — the baby boomers — is headed for retirement.

The answer, he said, is not changing minimum eligible retirement ages or encouraging families to have more children. Rather, Chrétien said, Canada is working on reforming what he called an already "very open immigration policy" to simplify immigration procedures and admit people to the country more quickly.

"We do not achieve as many immigrants as we would like to have in the Canadian economy," the Prime Minister said.

Canada has an annual immigration goal of 1 per cent of the population or about 300,000 immigrants a year, but Chrétien admitted, "we never managed to do that." The country now receives between 225,000 and 250,000 immigrants yearly.

"We're trying to streamline this operation but to make sure that we don't receive too many bad apples," he said.

"But at the same time, we have to make sure that we have the population that is needed to keep the economy growing and, you know, the needed taxpayers that will be needed to maintain the level of revenues that will help us to pay for the social programs that are quite good in Canada."

Asked whether there are any policies the government could adopt to encourage Canadian couples to have more children, Chrétien, in French, said no.

"At this moment, it's not an element of discussion," he said. "It's a question of social attitude on the part of families, or people who want to have fewer children than before.

"Fortunately it was not the case in 1933 or I would not be here," quipped the Prime Minister, who shows no sign of retiring soon.

Immigration Minister Denis Coderre and Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart also pointed to the immigration system as key to addressing the economic needs of the aging population.

Coderre said he wants a federal-provincial conference on immigration this fall to look for ways to attract more immigrants. "We are totally dedicated to have new immigrants and more skilled workers in our country," he said.

"This is going to be one of the major issues for the fall," Coderre added, calling for a new federal-provincial partnership on immigration and improvements to the provincial systems for verifying the qualifications of professional immigrants.

Ottawa has recently introduced measures to streamline the way applications are handled, but at the same time, critics say, it has also made it tougher for skilled workers to qualify for admission under strict new entry criteria.

Chrétien said most legislation dealing with workplace retirement ages comes under provincial jurisdiction, and the federal government has only limited power to deal with its own employees or those in federally regulated industries and crown corporations.

Still, Stewart, the minister responsible for the Canada Pension Plan and labour support programs, said Ottawa will have to look seriously at ways to allow older workers to remain in the workplace.

"I think things will move in that direction. I mean we're talking now about the potential of a million workers short by the year 2020, so all these things are aspects of the changing dynamics in Canada that are part and parcel, for example, of our skills and learning agenda."

The Liberal government has already taken action to deal with the impact of baby boomers on federal pension funds with premium hikes implemented in 1995, Stewart said, adding the CPP is now sustainable.

"Other countries haven't dealt with it. ... And they're coming to Canada to talk to us about how we've done it."

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