Canada plans to welcome millions of immigrants. Can our aging infrastructure keep up?

The Conversation

Tyler Dawson The National Post Published Dec 21, 2022  

The Canadian population just blew past 39 million, and the country is only going to get bigger: Ottawa announced in November it wants to bring in a half-million more immigrants each year. The population grows apace, our infrastructure — governmental and private — is struggling to keep up. And it’s a story playing out across Canada.

Few young people can afford a home, we’re all stuck on gridlocked roads or jammed into buses and subways, and our hospitals are overcrowded. Climate change will only further weaken infrastructure that is crumbling in many parts of the country. And Canada isn’t particularly known for getting stuff done quickly anymore.

Experts say a crisis is looming for many cities, as the population is expected to hit 47.8 million people in 2043.

“Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are probably going to be fine,” said Mike Moffatt, a professor at Western University in London, Ont., and senior director of policy and innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank. “But, you know, we’re looking at the (Greater Toronto Area), lower mainland B.C. and potentially the areas around Halifax, we probably have some challenges.”

Moffatt said a new school opened recently in London that had more portables than classrooms from day one.

“By the time they actually got the thing built, the population of children in the neighbourhood had, like, doubled over what had been projected.”

This overcrowded bus is being driven by much-needed immigration.

The birthrate reached a historic low in Canada of 1.4 births per woman in 2021. New immigrants tend to be younger and have young families, or start them soon after arriving. This means schools. It means the development of more housing, in the areas where people want to live, in the cities where immigrants tend to settle — Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. This means the infrastructure will need to grow, too: transit and walkable communities, a power grid that can sustain increased use because of climate change and the maintenance of infrastructure that currently exists.

It’s not just the big cities. Even if most new Canadians aren’t relocating to Kelowna or Kamloops or Halifax, many established families are moving. Population growth, at least according to Statistics Canada projections, is going to be spread out around the country. StatCan projects provinces will grow by between 8.6 per cent (New Brunswick) and 46.3 per cent (Alberta).

Even Prince Edward Island will see its population grow by more than one quarter. Only Newfoundland and Labrador is expected to see a decline in population growth.

Plenty of infrastructure — housing, for example — is largely built privately, but experts say public spending is needed in other quarters, such as transit.

“The population (growth) is positive, but our infrastructure has to catch up and has to be able to keep pace, or else all of the types of frustrations and issues that we’re seeing today are only going to be magnified,” said Matti Siemiatycki, Canada Research Chair in infrastructure and finance at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities.

Municipalities, which shoulder many of these costs, rely heavily on property taxes — which don’t necessarily grow with inflation or as the economy grows — and grants from other levels of government. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates 60 per cent of Canada’s infrastructure is built and maintained by municipalities themselves, which, compared to other levels of government that can levy income and sales taxes, have few revenue-generating sources.

The federal government has a whole department devoted to spending on infrastructure, and has embarked upon an assessment of all of Canada’s infrastructure, with a view toward ensuring infrastructure is maintained and developed as 2050 approaches.

Between 2016 and 2028, a dedicated $180 billion will be spent on a variety of infrastructure projects. The projects cover a colossal range: $195,000 for 12 audible pedestrian signals in Ontario, $31,468 for curbs and gutters somewhere in Newfoundland and Labrador, $4.3 million for the Woodworth Lake Dam replacement in British Columbia, among others, from lighthouses to sewers to electric vehicles.

But the single largest issue in many parts of the country is the availability and price of housing. The numbers are staggering. In the Toronto region, a single-family home now sells for, on average, $1.2 million. In Vancouver, it’s around $1.7 million.

Between 2017 and 2021, the Halifax region grew by roughly 40,000 people, from 421,712 to 460,274. The impact of that growth: The average Halifax home cost $460,000 this year, way up from $350,000 in 2020.

Even if housing prices have calmed in much of the country, prices are still unattainable for many Canadians in some regions and markets. The Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation estimates that while there will be 19 million housing units in Canada by 2030, that will still be 3.5 million units short to “restore affordability.”

Kelowna, nestled in the stunning Okanagan Valley, is the fastest-growing census metropolitan area in the country. It’s no surprise. It has beautiful summers, bountiful vineyards and world-class outdoor recreation year-round, making it a favoured destination for retirees, young families and Albertans with oil money jingling in their pockets.

Rob Miles, a planner with the city of Kelowna, explained that the Kelowna metropolitan area, which has seen its population grow from 194,892 in 2016 to 222,162, is missing what he called middle housing. That’s the sort of housing that falls somewhere in between a one-bedroom condo downtown and a mansion on the soaring hills that overlook the city. The average single-family home is now $1.1 million.

“A single-family home may not work for you for a whole host of reasons, including affordability, or distance to work. But a small apartment may not work for you either. So, this bridges that gap between our single-family homes and in our apartments and provides a lot more opportunities for that infill and redevelopment that that we’re looking for,” said Miles.

In Ontario, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government recently promised 1.5 million new homes will get built in the next decade. As it stands, the province is short more than 470,000 homes.

In Ontario, there’s a straightforward, if not exactly simple, issue: Finding enough tradespeople with the know-how to actually build housing. Under a best-case scenario, housing starts in Ontario, Quebec and B.C. will still be only half of what they need to be, the Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation said this year.

But even if you have the contractors, there are supply chain issues, at least at the moment, constraining construction, and also boosting prices. And even if you find the materials, there are the city management questions of where to actually build and whether established neighbourhoods can be made denser — sometimes over the wishes of the people who already live there.

Edmonton is a sprawling metropolis. It’s roughly 700 square kilometres, larger than Toronto’s 630 square-kilometre area or Vancouver’s 144 square kilometres. But with around one million people, Edmonton is far less dense. The city has basically infinite space to sprawl and house prices demonstrate that: The average single-family home goes for $434,000. It has built more than 2,800 homes since 2018, although the bulk of them charge near-market rates.

Toronto doesn’t have space to sprawl, since it is squeezed between neighbouring municipalities and Lake Ontario. This necessitates “building up” instead of out — a concept, that Gregg Lintern, Toronto’s chief planner, called “complete cities,” looking at all sorts of factors in development plans, from transit to sewer to housing to employment to parks and shopping.

“If you ever played SimCity, like what do you build up around you that makes your daily life work for you, right?” said Lintern. “So you focus on not only growing, but how you grow so growing in a sustainable way, right?”

Shauna Brail, an economic geographer at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said developers need to be able and willing to build increased density and environmentally sustainable buildings. But that’s not always possible.

“(It’s) also complicated in a city like Toronto, by residents who live in single family neighbourhoods, who want to make sure you know who want to keep those neighbourhoods the way they are,” said Brail. “(Canada) can’t grow to the extent that’s necessary, in a sustainable way in a way that leverages the kinds of investments that are needed in infrastructure, including in transit, without increasing density.”

Every new house needs a toilet and shower. That requires sewers. And for every new house, or apartment building, there’s a corresponding increase in toilets flushed and dishwater drained, which adds to the load on the sewer system and water treatment.

“How do you actually get enough wires to these places, which is a big issue here, because not only do we need to support population growth, but we also need to support the fact that we’re trying to have a province where most people have an electric vehicle, and that, you know, greatly increases the need for grid capacity,” said Moffatt. “And then you need to do things on the generation side as well.”

A growing population needs better transit. Governments are shovelling money at it. The federal Liberals have committed $14.9 billion over eight years for transit projects across the country. But if there’s one thing Canada seems to be really bad at, it’s building transit.

“In our major cities across the country, we’re being strangled by gridlock. And our public transit systems have not kept pace — we, typically in this country, missed a generation of transit investment, just as one example,” said Siemiatycki.

Compared to other nations, Canada has astonishingly high construction costs, even when accounting for factors such as geography and climate. Canada, according to analysis by transit researcher Alon Levy, pays hundreds of millions of dollars more per kilometre of light-rail line than other countries.

In any number of Canadian cities, transit expansions are political, bogged down in debates and promises. They’re funded, then cancelled, then routes are changed, then they run into lawsuits or companies fail to deliver trains, or construction has problems — and the list continues.

Toronto, which has had a functioning subway system since 1954, has been bogged down in constructing the Eglinton LRT line for, depending how you count, decades. The modern attempt at the line began in 2007, though it later went through a series of debates under then-mayor Rob Ford before getting back on track. Still, it was complicated by a series of lawsuits and construction delays — the line remains behind schedule in being opened.

Even Vancouver, which got the Canada Line built in an astonishing four years in preparation for the 2010 Olympic Games, had spent the prior two decades debating such a project; the first discussions of building a transit line between Vancouver and Richmond happened back in the early 1990s.

It’s not only large cities that face these planning challenges, either. When Greyhound shut down in much of the country in 2018, it left those in rural areas with fewer options for intercity travel, other than by car. In many parts of Canada that remains the case — outside of the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor, there is little by way of intercity rail transport. Bus service can be spotty. And for those in small towns or rural areas, they depend on roads — and cars — to get everything they need, from getting to doctors to buying groceries.

The cost of housing matters, too: If you’ve got to drive until you qualify, there’s a good chance transit in those places isn’t going to be very useful to you, so you’ve got to drive. Even in urban centres, a walk for groceries might not be realistic, so people drive. University of Alberta research from 2015 identified eight Edmonton neighbourhoods, including some low income and high-density areas, that didn’t have a grocer within one kilometre.

“Then you compound that with road maintenance backlogs and potholes. And then a lack of bicycle lanes and under-served pedestrian facilities,” said Siemiatycki. “We’ve often fallen behind on maintenance, we haven’t consistently invested so things are starting to look a little shabby.”

In Edmonton, which does its planning based on areas of the city rather than a timeline or a specific population, the idea is to attempt to densify established neighbourhoods rather than continue to expanding outward, explained Lindsey Butterfield, an urban strategist with the city.

“What we’re driving toward is managing our growth in a way that’s different than we ever have, which is really looking at, what are the areas that are ready to receive intensification?” said Butterfield. “How do we leverage our existing infrastructure for that or intensify or renew that infrastructure where needed so that we’re not growing outward as quickly.”

In conversations on the state of Canada’s infrastructure, people pointed to new neighbourhoods where governments are scrambling to get schools built to accommodate new students. The same goes for less obvious infrastructure, like city facilities such as gyms and fitness centres, community centres and parks. Indeed, said Butterfield, as certain areas of a city like Edmonton intensify, it may be that the aging facilities cannot handle that growth and need to be updated.

“We’re paying attention to what the market’s doing and making sure that our municipal investments align with where people are investing themselves in terms of new homes or businesses,” said Butterfield.

The greying of the Canadian population adds a number of challenges to the infrastructure equation. By 2043, more than one-fifth of the Canadian population will be retirement age, according to Statistics Canada. By 2068, fully one-quarter will be older than 65. It will place more demand on the medical system, as people live longer, and indeed, live longer with more chronic health conditions in need of management.

As with transit and other infrastructure challenges, Canada hasn’t always proven itself up to the task of solving those problems quickly enough.

The Ottawa Hospital has been working on an expansion project for years — 15 years ago, the existing hospital was determined to be too old, and would be too costly and difficult to rebuild, according to city planning documents. In 2016, one site was scuttled. Later that year, a second site was rejected by the hospital’s board. And so the search for a new site continued, going through lengthy debates over location, transit and parking. The project, which involves all three levels of government, is now underway, although other issues, such as the uprooting of some 500 trees for the $2.8-billion project, caused concern among city Indigenous groups.

And this is all just the new stuff that needs to get built. There are thousands of miles of road, dozens of bridges and recreation facilities, theatres and sewers that require ongoing — and in some cases immediate — upkeep.

In 2019, the Canada Infrastructure Report Card noted that a “concerning” proportion of Canada’s existing infrastructure was in “poor” or “very poor” condition, and would need rehabilitation or replacement within five to 10 years.

It notes that 16.4 per cent of Canada’s roads were in poor or very poor condition, 12.4 per cent of bridges, thousands of culture and rec centres, and a number of wastewater, stormwater and drinking water infrastructure around the country.

In many cases, the report notes, the deterioration is evident between its 2016 and 2019 report.

“It’s much harder to maintain interest in operating and maintaining what you already have. And you know, and infrastructure needs to be maintained day after day, month after month, year after year,” said Siemiatycki.

The reality is that Canada needs to confront infrastructure challenges, both in terms of building new bridges and roads and dykes, and in terms of ensuring what we do have doesn’t crumble under the strain of a growing population.

“We have no choice,” Siemiatycki said. “This is a challenging time, when you have infrastructure that’s decades old, and that needs to be maintained and we need to also be an expansion mode to serve the current population and all those who are going to be coming.”