Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stuck to a familiar talking point in town halls he has held across the country: that Canadians are among the few people around the world who are still welcoming immigration.
Trudeau struck a similar note when he held a town hall in Cambridge, Ont. on Tuesday.
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The prime minister faced a question from a Waterloo resident, who had immigrated to Canada from Afghanistan 13 years ago, about the length of time it takes to come to the Great White North.
Trudeau responded that the world is facing “unprecedented challenges” around migration, with about 60 million displaced people — challenges which, he said, will only increase and that Canada needs to “be able to manage that well.”
Then he said this:
“We are incredibly lucky in Canada for a whole bunch of reasons, but one of them is that Canadians remain one of the few people in the world who are, generally, positively inclined toward immigration, whether we’re looking at Europe or other places around the world.”
Trudeau offered similar remarks at a town hall event in Regina in January, when he said, “Canada remains one of the only countries in the world where citizens are by and large positively inclined toward immigration.”
But just how welcoming are Canadians to immigration? Polls this year suggest they have concerns.
A recent poll by Ekos Politics, which surveyed just over 1,000 people, shows that the share of respondents who feel there are too many immigrants is pretty much in line with previous years.
What’s changed, however, is the share of respondents who feel too many immigrants are members of visible minority groups.
That number is up “significantly” — it’s at 39 per cent, compared to about 35 per cent in a previous poll, in a survey with a three-per-cent margin of error — and it “no longer trails opposition to general immigration” as it has done historically, Ekos said.
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“Racial discrimination is now an equally important factor in views about immigration than the broader issue of immigration,” the pollster said.
Those feelings were clear among respondents throughout Canada, too.
Across the country, 40 per cent of respondents said there were too many immigrants from visible minority groups, compared to 43 per cent who said the level was “just right,” and 12 per cent who said there were too few.
Those numbers were similar to the ones seen in 2015, when the Liberals won the federal election. At that time, 41 per cent of respondents said too many immigrants were members of visible minority groups, while 37 per cent said the number was just right.
The poll also found a clear partisan divide when it came to feelings about immigration.
Among respondents identified as Conservative voters, 69 per cent said too many immigrants were visible minorities, compared to 15 per cent for Liberal supporters.
For Conservatives, those numbers were up from the share reported in 2013 (47 per cent) and in 2015 (53 per cent).
“We believe that these shifts are a reflection of a wider shift which has seen an ordered populism emerging in Canada,” Ekos said.
It’s a trend driven by factors such as economic stagnation, accelerating inequality at the “top of the economic pyramid,” as well as a “sense of loss of privilege and identity status and a magnified sense that the external world is newly threatening.”
Such factors are linked to various trends — including “deep reservations to immigration, particularly non-white immigration.”
“It is quite different from traditional status quo conservatism or small government, free market conservatism,” the pollster said.
“It is an extremely emotionally powerful force and it is clearly at work in Canada as it is in other western countries.”
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Ekos’ poll isn’t the only one reflecting Canadian concerns about immigration.
Earlier this year, most respondents to an Ipsos poll conducted for Global News felt that Canada is “too welcoming to immigrants.”
Ipsos CEO Darrell Bricker said at the time that Canadians appear to be more concerned than they’ve ever been about the process by which immigrants come to Canada.
“In Canada, the focus doesn’t seem to be on the immigrants themselves, more about the process of how someone gets into the country,” he said.
That concern conflicts with something else Trudeau said at his town hall in Cambridge:
“One of the reasons that Canadians remain positive toward immigration in a time when other people are not around the world, is Canadians continue to have confidence in our immigration system, that it is rules-based, that it is fair, independent-minded, that it is open and accessible.”
The Ipsos poll, which surveyed over 2,000 people, found that certain people’s feelings around immigration weren’t necessarily based on facts.
The poll came amid a surge in asylum seekers — 36,000 who had entered Canada from the U.S. irregularly since the start of 2017.
Such numbers represented just over a third of the approximately 50,000 people who had made refugee claims in the same year.
Canada, however, has seen similar numbers in the past — there were over 44,000 refugee claims in Canada in 2001.
The country seems to be developing anti-immigrant sentiment that has been witnessed in other nations, but it’s not as strong as in places such as Europe or the United States, Bricker said.
“There is the potential that someone could throw a match and this could be a combustible issue,” he said.
“Since we look at this on a global basis, public concern about immigration in Canada is not what it is in France or Germany.”
In other words, the prime minister may be right that Canadians are welcoming to immigration, relative to other countries.
But it seems clear that people aren’t quite as welcoming as he might like to think they are.
— With files from Jessica Vomiero and Andrew Russell