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Canada Canadian views on immigrants, refugees hold steady, despite increasing political rhetoric: poll

Canadians’ views on immigrants and refugees have held steady over the past six months despite increasing political rhetoric about asylum seekers, a new survey shows.

A poll by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, provided exclusively to The Globe and Mail, shows the question of whether immigration levels are too high continues to produce a large gap along political lines. Seventy-five per cent of Liberal supporters and 70 per cent of NDP respondents said they disagree with the notion that immigration levels are too high, compared with 44 per cent of Conservatives. On the other hand, 49 per cent of Tory respondents said they agree that immigration levels are too high, with Liberals at 20 per cent and NDP voters at 27 per cent.

The immigration debate among the federal political parties – particularly the governing Liberals and Opposition Conservatives – has intensified ahead of the election scheduled for this fall. Environics has consistently asked Canadians the same questions and found they are not any more concerned about immigration than they were six months ago. The political divide has only changed by a couple of percentage points since October, 2018, except for a 4-per-cent decrease in Conservatives who agree immigration levels are too high.

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“I don’t think that anything has happened in the country that has been significant enough to shift the underlying attitudes that people have [toward immigration],” said Keith Neuman, executive director of Environics.

Canada has become a more welcoming country for immigrants and refugees over the past few decades, according to polling. Survey data dating back to the 1990s shows a decline in anti-immigration views on numerous measures, including the economic impact of immigration and support for immigration levels.

With more than 42,000 asylum seekers having entered Canada through unofficial points of entry since U.S. President Donald Trump launched his crackdown on illegal immigration two years ago, immigration has been at the forefront of political debates. The Liberal government is working with U.S. officials to revamp a border agreement on asylum seekers so Canada can turn away more refugee claimants at the land border, but the Conservatives say Ottawa must act immediately to stop them from entering the country.

The Environics poll shows 44 per cent of Canadians think immigration makes the country a better place, while 15 per cent says it makes Canada a worse place, 34 per cent believe it has made no difference and 7 per cent have no opinion. Directly comparable numbers from 2018 indicate Canadians’ views remain stable, with responses about the impact of immigration varying by only a few percentage points. Asked if immigration levels are too high, most people – 59 per cent – disagreed, compared with 58 per cent last October; the number of respondents who agreed remained steady at 35 per cent over the same period.

Mr. Neuman said polling data shows immigration is not a major concern for Canadians. Only 3 per cent of respondents said immigration and refugees are the most important problems facing Canada today, compared with the economy – the leading concern – at 22 per cent, climate change and poor government leadership at 14 per cent and health care at 8 per cent. Unemployment, taxes, education and social issues also ranked ahead of immigration.

Mr. Neuman said political parties are aware of the voter divide and will build an election platform based on it. He predicted the Liberals will appeal to their base and continue to promote immigration, while the Conservatives will strike more of a “balancing act.”

“The Conservatives have a much more challenging position because they can see that their base is much less positive [about immigration] but they do need to reach out to others who may not have voted Conservative the last time,” he said.

The Environics poll is based on phone interviews with 2,000 Canadians between April 1 and 10 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Other polling has shown a trend of increasing negativity toward immigration. An Angus Reid Institute survey from last July identified an increase in the number of people who think there should be fewer immigrants coming to Canada, up to 49 per cent in 2018 from 36 per cent in 2014. Shachi Kurl, executive director of the institute, said the finding was a notable change in public opinion.

“It was the first time … in a long time that Canadians were more likely to say that they wanted to see fewer immigrants,” Ms. Kurl said.

An EKOS Research Associates poll, conducted earlier this month, showed about 40 per cent of Canadians think there are too many visible minorities among immigrants coming to Canada. The poll surveyed 1,045 Canadians from April 3 to 11 and has a margin of error plus or minus 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The change in opinion about visible minority immigrants only varied by a few percentage points in previous years, meaning that with the margin of error, it is difficult to identify an increase in Canadians’ belief that there are too many non-white immigrants coming to the country.

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