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Experts surprised immigration didn’t play more prominent role in federal leaders’ debate

WATCH: Jagmeet Singh, Maxime Bernier clash over views on immigration.

Excluding an early question that provoked a barrage of attacks against People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier, Monday night’s leaders debate featured few questions about immigration — and none about refugees, specifically.

This left some migration experts feeling surprised and disappointed that immigration issues — which have been the source of heated political exchanges in Canada over the past two years — didn’t play more prominently in the debate.

READ MORE: Bernier challenged over ‘extreme multiculturalism’ tweet during leaders’ debate

“There was no substance on immigration policy, on Canada’s refugee policy, on Canada’s role in the world on these issues,” said Queen’s University law professor Sharry Aiken.

“I was disappointed that there wasn’t much there.”

Aiken says that the section of the debate dedicated to “polarization, human rights and immigration” focused almost entirely on Quebec’s contentious Bill 21, the religious symbols ban that bars religious head coverings in some sections of the public service, and that immigration issues were overshadowed by the discussion about discrimination.

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The rising rhetoric around refugees is fuelling many falsehoods about whether these new arrivals pose a threat
The rising rhetoric around refugees is fuelling many falsehoods about whether these new arrivals pose a threat

Aiken believes discussing Bill 21 is very important, but she thinks debate moderators could have been better at focusing their questions on specific issues, such as the recent challenges faced by Canada’s asylum system.

“I think it was a lost opportunity,” she said.

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The standout moment for Aiken on immigration was Bernier’s claim that Canada takes in more immigrants than any other western nation.

Aiken says this claim is untrue. Citing a recent report from the World Economic Forum, she says Australia has a higher ratio of immigrants — 28 per cent of its population compared to Canada at 21 per cent.

READ MORE: Just 0.3% of irregular migrants in Canada found to have serious criminal past

She also questions Bernier’s math about letting in more economic immigrants. Bernier has claimed Canada should reduce immigration levels to 150,000 a year, while at the same time taking in more economic immigrants.

But in 2017, Canada accepted roughly 159,000 economic immigrants, she said. If Bernier’s immigration policy was implemented, Canada would actually see an overall reduction in economic immigration.

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Meanwhile, Sean Rehaag, director of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, was also surprised by the fact that “a debate where immigration was expected to play a major role” had so few questions about immigration.

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He noted that neither the influx of irregular border crossings that began in April 2017 nor the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States figured prominently in the debate.

This is also one of the issues where the parties have distinct policy options when it comes to how Canada should handle its asylum system.

No ‘political capital’ to be gained on immigration

Others were less surprised that immigration wasn’t a bigger topic for party leaders.

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, thinks the lack of attention on immigration means political parties have decided that no “political capital” can be gained from this issue.

“It was a good move on the part of all the parties not to go there,” Kurland said.

READ MORE: Where the main four parties stand on immigration

Craig Damian Smith, director of the Global Migration Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy in Toronto, agrees that it was wise for the leaders not to focus on immigration, particularly the divisive issues around refugee resettlement and how to handle irregular migration at unofficial ports of entry.

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Scheer claims asylum seekers are ‘skipping the line’

Like Kurland, Smith thinks the party leaders have realized that immigration isn’t an issue where voters can be won or lost.

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This doesn’t mean immigration isn’t important, Smith said. It just means that when it comes time to vote on Oct. 21, he believes most Canadians will be focused on issues like health care, education and the economy.

Smith also pointed out what he saw as a significant moment in the debate — that is, when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer lashed out at Bernier for his past comments about immigrants, saying Bernier had changed from someone who used to believe in an immigration system that was fair, orderly and compassionate to someone who bases his policies on the number of likes and retweets he gets on social media from the “darkest parts of Twitter.”

According to Smith, this “well-rehearsed” line shows that the Conservatives now realize Canadians, on average, support the country’s current approach to immigration.

Leaders’ Debate: Standout moments from the night
Leaders’ Debate: Standout moments from the night

Smith still thinks that who wins the election could have big consequences on the future of immigration in Canada — especially for refugees — but in Monday’s debate, at least, it looked like everyone other than Bernier agreed immigration is important to Canada’s future.

“Even when they had the section on polarization, human rights and immigration, they all took that opportunity to steer it towards other issues, either to attack one another or to bolster their own position on other issues,” he said.

“It’s a good thing, or it’s at least a good sign, that they decided to steer the debate away from [immigration] because it means that that’s not going to be an issue that Canadians are going to vote on.”
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