Public support for immigration has fallen sharply over the past year as Canadians increasingly tie affordability and housing concerns to a historic influx of newcomers, according to survey results published on Monday.
Forty-four per cent of Canadians think immigration levels are too high, up from 27 per cent last year, according to a survey conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in partnership with the Century Initiative, an organization that advocates for Canada’s population to hit 100 million by 2100. This was the largest change in sentiment between surveys that Environics has observed in four-plus decades of polling on the topic.
Just a year ago, public support for immigration was stronger than ever, Environics found. But since then, Canadians have been consumed by a number of economic worries, including high inflation, rising interest payments and a worsening housing crisis, which is pushing up resale prices and rents across the country.
At the same time, Canada is growing rapidly. Over the 12 months through June, the population expanded by around 1.2 million people, bringing the total number of residents to 40.1 million. At 3 per cent, this was the largest 12-month increase since 1957; international migration accounted for almost the entirety of the expansion.
This surge has led to a spirited debate about immigration and Canada’s ability to absorb so many people so quickly. The results from Environics are similar to other recent surveys, including a Nanos poll for The Globe and Mail that found more than half of Canadians want the country to accept fewer immigrants than Ottawa’s plan.
“We see these results as a clarion call for action,” said Lisa Lalande, the chief executive officer of the Century Initiative. “You cannot address demographic decline through immigration without having these corresponding investments” in housing and other areas.
The survey was published just before the federal government unveils its next three-year plan for immigration this week, covering 2024 to 2026. Last year, Ottawa said it was aiming to admit 500,000 permanent residents annually by 2025, part of a steady increase since the Liberal Party came to power in 2015.
As the Liberals struggle with weaker support in the polls, the Century Initiative is hoping the government doesn’t water down its immigration plans. “Now is not the time to pull back on immigration,” Ms. Lalande said.
Of late, the population increase is mostly driven by the arrival of temporary residents, such as international students and workers, many of whom wish to settle permanently in Canada. There are no limits on the issuance of temporary visas, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that his government was considering a cap.
Under Mr. Trudeau, the Liberals have made high immigration a cornerstone of their economic agenda. They argue that not only will immigration lead to stronger growth, but it will also help fill jobs as Canada gets progressively older.
David Williams, vice-president of policy at the Business Council of British Columbia, said this is a naive view of how economies work. He pointed to a stagnation in gross domestic product per capita as a sign that average living standards were not improving, despite the high intake of newcomers. Furthermore, there is ample research that indicates immigration has little effect – positive or negative – on per-capita output or average wages.
“Canada’s immigration policy has really become disconnected from the academic evidence,” Mr. Williams said. “There seems to be a view in Ottawa that ever-increasing immigration levels is a panacea for all of the structural problems in Canada’s economy.”
Rupa Banerjee, a Canada Research Chair in immigration and economics at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the country has struggled for a long time to build homes in sufficient quantities. “People are getting this wrong impression that the immigration situation is causing the housing crisis,” she said.
The Environics survey found the largest declines in support for immigration in British Columbia and Ontario. There was a sharp divide by political party: Nearly two-thirds of Conservative Party supporters agreed with the statement that “there is too much immigration to Canada,” compared with 29 per cent of Liberals and 21 per cent of New Democratic Party backers.
Still, the results suggest that Canadians see the upsides of immigration. Around three-quarters of people agreed that immigration has a positive impact on the economy, down from 85 per cent last year.
The survey was based on telephone interviews conducted with 2,002 Canadians between Sept. 4 and 17. The results are accurate to within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points in 19 out of 20 samples.
The Century Initiative was co-founded by Mark Wiseman, chair of Alberta Investment Management Corp., and Dominic Barton, the former global managing partner of consulting giant McKinsey & Co. Mr. Barton also served as chair of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which recommended to the Trudeau government in 2016 that it raise its annual intake of permanent residents by 50 per cent over five years.
“We do not believe in growth at all costs,” Ms. Lalande said. “That growth must absolutely be accompanied by investments in infrastructure, both physical and social.”
Dr. Banerjee said the federal government could do a better job of communicating its plans for how these newcomers will integrate into Canada. Otherwise, she said, people are left with the impression that there is no plan.
“For several years now, I’ve been slightly concerned that we shouldn’t take this high support for immigration for granted,” she said. “It’s very precarious, to be honest.”