poll on race has troubling implications for Canada

National Council of Canadian Muslims communications director Amira Elghawaby, right, on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Still think there is no Islamophobia in Canada? Think again.

A new poll commissioned by CROP-Radio Canada examined Canadians’ attitudes towards different minority and immigrant groups, and found that despite priding ourselves on our tolerance and openness, it does not extend equally to all groups.   When it came to integration into Canadian society, only 12 per cent of respondents believe that Muslims are very well integrated into Canadian society, compared to 47 per cent who hold this opinion of Italians, 43 per cent of Jews, and 31 per cent of Asian Canadians.  The group considered second least-integrated was Haitians, at 14 per cent.

Additionally, one in four Canadians and one in three Quebecers polled is very or more or less in favour of banning Muslim immigration to Canada, a la Donald Trump. And 60 per cent of Quebec and 44 per cent of Canadian respondents feel very or somewhat unfavourable to the building of a mosque, a far greater percentage than object to the construction of the houses of worship of other faiths.

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Those numbers don’t surprise Amira Elghawaby, communications director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.  “Different polls indicate that there are negative attitudes towards Muslims in Canada. According to Abacus and Forum research numbers from 2016, four-in-10 Canadians hold biased views towards Muslims,” she told iPolitics.

The poll also asked another set of questions, on the issue of trust and who Canadians  believe. While there is little appetite for a Canadian Trump, the type and contents of the populism that got him elected is highly popular here.  Eighty-eight per cent of Canadians and nine-in-10 Quebecers do not believe the so-called ‘elites’ – defined as politicians, businesspeople, scientists and the media – because they all “have something to sell you”.

Fully 55 per cent said they agree “completely” or “very much” with this sentiment. In Quebec this number hits 58 per cent – a number that has risen pretty consistently since 2004, when it stood at 41 per cent. This echoes the findings of other studies such as the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, which found trust “in crisis” around the world – including Canada.  For the first time since Edelman began tracking trust in business, government, NGOs and media in 2012, Canada slipped to the “distruster” category.

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This leads to two observations, both of which have serious implications for Canadians politics and immigration policy. The first is a dissonance between the lack of support for a “Canadian Trump” and the support Canadians profess for some of his policies and the populism that underscores them.  Rejecting a “Canadian Trump” may have more to do with the President’s personal style or attitudes than his incarnation of anti-elitism, or his views on immigration.

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On the Conservative side of the aisle, this would explain the appeal of leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary, as well as the decision by fellow candidate Kellie Leitch to run on screening newcomers for Canadian values (74 per cent of Canadians and a similar number of Quebecers polled support the idea). It also has implications for the NDP leadership race: should the party elect a populist politician in the mould of Bernie Sanders, or continue its attempts to stake out more middle-of the road ground between itself and the Liberal party?

Second, this distrust of ‘elites’ has serious implications for how society encourages tolerance and combats prejudice, notably against Muslims.  The Edelman poll found that 60 per cent of respondents consider “a person like myself” to be as credible a spokesperson as a technical expert. Politicians and regulators, however, are rated as “extremely / very credible” by only 29 per cent of respondents.   When it came to media, the CROP poll found that while most people help form their opinions based on the media, 59 per cent of Canadians say the media is “complicit” in the power and “establishment” of the country.

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Based on these findings, it appears that politicians and the media will have limited impact on changing attitudes and prejudices against newcomers, particularly Muslims. The backlash against Bill M-103, and the hateful messages received by its mover, Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, seem to represent not only anti-Muslim sentiment but a resentment of elites telling people “how to think.”  More effective, therefore, than top-down efforts to “preach” tolerance, would be to build connections at the personal and community level.

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RELATED COMMENTARY: Why is anti-Islamophobia motion somehow controversial for Conservatives?

According to Elghawaby, “People make up opinions based on how are they feeling.  For politicians to have any kind of impact, they need to understand mood of the community they are speaking to, rather than base everything on evidence.” She cites statistics that show that hate crimes against Muslims have doubled in a recent three-year period, noting that these numbers may not resonate with people looking at issues under motion 103.  “They may still feel negative about singling out Islamophobia as an issue to be examined,” and thus object to the motion.

And while politicians have a role in effecting change – Elghawaby cites the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate as an example — she also highlights efforts by Canadian Muslims, such as opening up mosques to fellow Canadians in and other interfaith activities so that people get to know one another, as key to changing hearts and minds. “A lot has to do with portrayals of stories around Canadian Muslims, which are often in a negative context.  When people actually know Muslims in their lives, they have a better impression of the entire community.”

In a world where elites have fallen from their pedestal, making the political personal – rather than the other way around – may thus be the best way to build bridges and fight fear.  And based on public opinion, it appears that there remains a great deal of work to be done.

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Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. ET on Toronto Talk Radio AM640. She’s also a columnist with Global News and, where this piece first appeared.

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