COMMENTARY: Maxime Bernier exploits ‘cracks’ in traditional support for immigration

14% of Canadians say immigration a top election issue: Ipsos poll
WATCH: 14% of Canadians say immigration a top election issue, Ipsos poll says

In late August, billboards advertising the position of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada on immigration were put up and quickly taken down.

The billboards in question showed a picture of Bernier beside the words “say NO to mass immigration.” The advertising agency that had booked the billboards said it took them down because of widespread criticism from Canadians and political leaders across the country.

Fast-forward to this week and the Leaders’ Debates Commission has granted Bernier and his views on immigration a podium at the nationally televised debates. Their reason for doing so? Because there is a legitimate chance that the People’s Party of Canada might elect more than one candidate in the upcoming election. This almost guarantees that no matter what questions are put forward by the debate moderators, immigration is going to be raised as an issue.

READ MORE: Maxime Bernier invited to take part in federal election leaders’ debates

Who does Bernier speak for on this file?

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Depending on the polls, his party only has the support of between one per cent and five per cent nationally. But research for the debates commission in four ridings found that between 25 per cent and 34 per cent of the residents in these ridings would at least consider voting for their local People’s Party candidate.

I know what you’re thinking: less than four per cent nationally and less than 34 per cent in a few ridings doesn’t do anything to diminish the rock-solid support Canadians have for immigration. And you are right.

But in Ipsos’ most recent survey of Canadians for Global News, we found some cracks in that rock-solid support. Immigration ranks seventh as an issue Canadians say will drive their vote in October.

Fourteen per cent of Canadians say it is a top issue for them. Among those who say immigration is a top issue in determining how they will vote, their primary reason for this is that “Canada takes in too many immigrants” (49 per cent). Only five per cent of those who say immigration is a top issue say Canada needs more immigration.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the 2019 federal leaders’ debates

Clearly, those going to the polls to vote on immigration matters aren’t fans of the current system.

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However, there are six issues that are more important to Canadians than immigration — health care, the economy and climate change among them — so the ultimate ballot question in this campaign is not going to be about immigration, but neither is this an inconsequential issue.

Let’s set the election aside for a minute. A discussion about immigration shouldn’t be all about votes and trying to win an election because long after Oct. 21, Canadians — if not their political leaders — are still going to be talking about immigration.

How do Canadians feel about immigration overall? The results below are from a global poll on nativism and populism Ipsos recently released. When looked at through this lens, we see some weakening of Canadians’ acceptance, if not support, for immigration.

  • Four in 10 (41 per cent) Canadians agree that immigrants take important social services away from “real Canadians,” up six points from 2016. One in three (34 per cent) disagree while 22 per cent are neutral and two per cent don’t know.
  • Just 11 per cent agree (unchanged) that Canada would be better off if we let in all immigrants who wanted to come here, while 61 per cent disagree, 25 per cent are neutral and three per cent don’t know.
  • Fully one half (50 per cent) agree that when jobs are scarce, employers should prioritize people from this country over immigrants, up five points from 2016. Just 21 per cent disagree, while 27 per cent are neutral and two per cent don’t know.

READ MORE: Most Canadians feel society is ‘broken’, politicians don’t care about them, Ipsos poll

Are Canadians saying “no to mass immigration”? Not at all. At least, not in great numbers. But ignoring the shifts in public opinion — or worse, using it as a political wedge issue and dismissing all who raise immigration as a topic as racist or bigots — is not going to build support for immigration, either.

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As Statistics Canada noted in a release a few days after the Debates Commission gave Bernier his invitation to the Big League of Debates, for Canada to grow, we need more immigration not less.

Canada, like most developed countries, is facing declining birth rates. For our population to grow — and, in turn, our economy to grow — and for each of us to have a shot at rising household incomes, we must continue to accept more immigrants. But as the data clearly shows, not all Canadians are fully on board.

Bernier has tapped into a growing sentiment in Canada that all is not right with our immigration program, and we should welcome Bernier and his views on immigration to the debates, if for no other reason than he is putting the issue on the table.

WATCH: Bernier says PPC has ‘momentum’ after being included in national debates

Bernier says PPC has ‘momentum’ after being included in national debates
Bernier says PPC has ‘momentum’ after being included in national debates

And what better place to raise the issue than in front of five very able-minded party leaders who can champion the cause for increased immigration — if they choose to? For the long-term success of our country, we need them to. We need them to shine a very bright light on the economic and cultural benefits of immigration, and they should put forward their plans to make Canada’s immigration system better.

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More than likely, they will dismiss Bernier and his comments about immigration. They will try to paint him and those who support him as intolerant and un-Canadian to shut down the debate and return the campaign to its core focus, which seems to be which candidate posted what on social media in 2011.

All this will do is allow Bernier’s followers to grow and their beliefs to harden.

Mike Colledge is president of Ipsos Public Affairs, Canada.