Letter from the editor: The case for 100 million Canadians

Mark Wiseman, then-chief executive officer of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, speaks during an interview in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. Kevin Van Paassen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mark Wiseman, senior managing director at BlackRock—the largest asset-management firm in the world—is putting a positive spin on the Canadian election that was. 

Some are feeling dismayed by the party leaders’ lack of leadership on issues such as Quebec’s Bill 21, or their inability to discuss anything of real substance. Wiseman thinks we should look at the positives and take note of what the three main political parties didn’t discuss: neither the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) nor immigration became major election issues.

“I was quite heartened because I think in the world today—where there is so much divisiveness, where wedge politics play such an important part in the way parties are positioning themselves with populism—on the issue of Canadian values, there was broad-based agreement,” he said.

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Wiseman has a particular interest in both topics. As the former CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), he saw the impending crisis in Canada’s aging population and then had a front-row seat as the government lowered the retirement age and increased CPP contributions.

I met Wiseman at his BlackRock office in Toronto on Thursday to discuss the call for Canada to increase its population to 100 million, issued this week by the Century Initiative, a non-profit he founded with five other Canadian executives including Dominic Barton, then-managing director of consulting giant McKinsey & Company. Barton was recently named Canada’s ambassador to China at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries.

The Century Initiative’s report makes the case for Canada to triple its population over the next 80 years, an idea also promoted by Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders in a 2017 book.

“The thing about demographics is it’s one of the only things that is entirely predictable,” Wiseman told me. 

Those demographic predictions suggest a smaller, older Canada that he said will lead to massive productivity challenges. Think of the decades of stagnant growth in Japan or South Korea, where the birth rate has plummeted and, if current trends continue, the population could be cut in half in a single generation.

The Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index backs up Wiseman’s concerns, reporting this week that Canada has a US$2.5-trillion gap between existing retirement savings and future needs. The country’s lowest rating was on the long-term sustainability of its retirement income systems.

“We need to invest in our future and we need to do it now,” said Wiseman. (He also co-founded Focusing Capital on the Long Term, a global research organization that employs my partner.)

The financial executive acknowledges that population growth is just one critical lever for Canadian competitiveness. The other: scale.

“As a small country with even 100 million, we’re never going to have an entirely robust domestic market that can generate enough domestic demand.” Wiseman explains. “By and large, Canadian companies and Canadian entrepreneurs, with some exceptions, aren’t big enough in their thinking.” 

As for thinking big in his own career, it’s been widely speculated that Wiseman is one of the favourites to succeed BlackRock’s co-founder and CEO Larry Fink when he retires. Wiseman, who is at his most comfortable discussing financials, sheepishly dodged my question about how likely it was that a Canadian would soon head up a firm with its US$7 trillion in assets under management. 

“I’d put the chances pretty low on a pure probability way.”