Andrew Perez is a Toronto-based freelance writer, media commentator and political activist.
In June, violent riots overtook more than a dozen French cities after a police officer shot and killed Nahel Merzouk, a French teen of Algerian and Moroccan descent who had driven through a red light while escaping police.
The reaction in Canada was as predictable as it was self-assured. Many commentators said the destructive events unfolding in France could never take place in a country like Canada.
But could they?
What transpired in France is a reflection of that country’s unwillingness to integrate its substantial North African population into broader French society more than 60 years after its colonial era came to a grinding halt in the North African Maghreb.
Unlike France, Canada is arguably the most welcoming country to new citizens globally. In 1971, prime minister Pierre Trudeau announced a first-of-its kind official government policy – multiculturalism – designed to recognize the contribution of cultural diversity and multicultural citizenship to Canada’s greater social fabric.
Multiculturalism has become a cornerstone of Canadian identity and has been accompanied by an equally popular policy: that of high immigration.
I’m the beneficiary of these dual policies. My father left France for Canada 50 years ago, arriving in Quebec’s Eastern Townships to start a new life just two years after Pierre Trudeau made official multiculturalism a reality.
But an Abacus Data poll released in July reveals a marked shift in public opinion on Canadian immigration policy. The poll found 61 per cent of Canadians believe the federal government’s target to welcome 500,000 planned permanent residents in 2025 is “too high,” including 37 per cent who feel it’s “way too high.”
While Conservative Party supporters are most likely to feel the immigration target of 500,000 is too high (with 52 per cent feeling it’s way too high), half of Liberal Party and NDP supporters feel the target is too high as well.
These numbers demonstrate a growing gap between how Canada’s economic and political leaders view immigration when compared with the broader public. If we don’t address the sentiments underlying this poll, what happened in France in June might not be so unimaginable in our own backyard.
Until now, immigration policy has been the third rail of Canadian politics. No mainstream politician has dared touch the issue for fear of public backlash. Maxime Bernier’s upstart People’s Party of Canada briefly flirted with anti-immigration rhetoric during the 2019 federal election only to receive a pitiful 1.6-per-cent support on election day.
The leaders of Canada’s three largest parties continue to speak out strongly in favour of generous immigration levels – and I believe they mean it.
At the political level, we continue to benefit from a consensus on immigration policy in this country – a consensus that cuts across parties, levels of government and regions. For example, Pierre Poilievre won the Conservative Party’s leadership one year ago this month, in part by appealing to ethnocultural communities and new Canadians. Canadian conservatism has never been synonymous with nativism, unlike in many other Western countries.
Meanwhile, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is the first non-white, turban-wearing national political leader in Canada. Since assuming the party’s leadership in 2017, Mr. Singh has used his platform to speak candidly about his experience as a racialized Canadian and major party leader.
To its credit, the Trudeau government continues to double down on economic immigration as a means to addressing Canada’s declining birth rate and widening labour shortage. In June, the government announced a “digital nomad strategy” that will empower workers with a foreign employer to stay and work in Canada for up to six months. Another recently announced program will introduce an immigration stream specifically targeted at technology workers, allowing them to enter the country whether they have a job or not.
Despite our cross-party consensus on economic immigration, we’re not immune to a scenario that could see some political leaders peddle anti-immigration rhetoric in exchange for votes. In fact, this is the norm in most of the Western world where nativist parties enjoy sizable support.
If we are to remain the most welcoming country in the world, our political leaders must do a much better job securing the social license needed to maintain high immigration levels, including addressing the housing affordability and health care crises.
The Abacus poll found that 63 per cent of Canadians feel high immigration levels are having a harmful impact on housing, while 49 per cent feel our immigration policies are negatively affecting the country’s stretched health care system.
Research shows that Canada must build 5.3 million homes over the next decade if we’re to credibly address the housing affordability crisis. But recent figures show Canada is on track to build less than half that number. Our most populous province, Ontario, built just 72,000 new units of housing last year while welcoming more than 184,000 permanent residents.
Part of securing social license for generous immigration policies requires our leaders to address the deplorable conditions experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in many parts of the country. Earlier this summer, news reports revealed that large numbers of asylum seekers were left to sleep on the streets of Toronto because of an overburdened shelter system.
Meanwhile, Canada’s public health care system is still reeling from the ravages of COVID-19 and is suffering from a shortage of doctors, nurses and hospital beds. Canadians of all backgrounds increasingly face lengthy wait times for elective surgeries, procedures, appointments, tests and imaging. Finding a family physician has become a herculean task; emergency rooms are at a breaking point.
The blunt reality is that our current health care system isn’t equipped to adequately serve the existing population, let alone vulnerable newcomers.
High immigration levels and official multiculturalism are inextricably linked to Canada’s immense economic and social success over the past 50 years. They’re the reason my father chose Canada in 1973. They’re also the reason he was successful building an extremely rewarding life here.
But the decidedly pro-immigration sentiments that marked my father’s formative years in this country are now at risk of disappearing. This ought to be a siren call for our political leaders at every level of government. Now isn’t the time for Canada to rest on its laurels from a bygone era. Our decision makers must confront the stark domestic policy challenges we face today to ensure we remain the envy of the world when it comes to welcoming immigration policies.