Skip to main content

Michael Adams is president of the Environics Institute for Survey Research and author of Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

Nearly 30,000 people have crossed into Canada from the United States at irregular crossings since early 2017, seeking refugee status and in many cases reportedly fearing deportation by the Trump administration to dangerous home countries. The Trudeau government projects calm about this pattern, repeating that the system is working and the rule of law is being upheld.

Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party has been cautious in its critiques of the government’s handling of the file, emphasizing a need for order but steering well clear of the hostility that marks the immigration and refugee debates in the United States and Europe. The Conservatives’ caution may be shaped by memories of two lessons from the Harper years. One was that the party had its greatest success when it avoided xenophobia, and therefore could credibly court immigrants in the suburbs of Canada’s big cities. The other was the failure of subsequent identity-based gambits, including the launch of the “Barbaric Cultural Practices” snitch line by Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander during the 2015 election campaign.

Maxime Bernier, a former Conservative leadership aspirant, rejects the caution of his former caucus – and sees an opening. He has bolted his party, denouncing the Conservatives’ refusal to question not only the Liberals’ management of asylum-seekers at the border, but the scale of Canada’s immigration program, the policy of what he calls “extreme multiculturalism,” and the acceptance of “ever more diversity.”

Is Canada now about to get an explicitly xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-multiculturalism political entity on the federal political scene? And if so, will it succeed?

Historically, the leaders of insurgent political movements, such as Reform and the Bloc Québécois, have tended to tamp down – not trumpet – the xenophobic strains of their movements for fear that anti-immigrant messages would alienate more voters than they attracted. Mr. Bernier may be calculating that political realignments over time have made his gambit electorally viable.

He’s not all wrong. In Canada, the anti-immigrant, anti-multiculturalism vote was once spread fairly evenly across political parties – and none gave it much oxygen. Over time, dissenters from the status quo on immigration and multiculturalism have become more concentrated in the Conservative Party and Bloc Québécois. According to our data, they don’t constitute a majority of these parties but they’re about twice as prevalent among self-identified Conservatives and Bloquistes as among self-identified Liberals, with their presence among Greens and the NDP falling in between. No party, including Mr. Scheer’s, has given these elements much encouragement in the past few years. Mr. Bernier is gambling that these voters are numerous and rankled enough to join him.

According to our data, the math doesn’t look promising. When we combine questions from our Focus Canada surveys that cover various angles on immigration, we find 8 per cent of the population holds wholly negative views, believing strongly that their country accepts too many immigrants, that immigrants “take away jobs” from other Canadians, that most refugee claims are dubious, and that immigrants tend not to integrate successfully. Another 23 per cent express many but not all of these negative attitudes. At the other end of the spectrum, we find 23 per cent of Canadians who are strongly positive on all four immigration items – three times the proportion who are totally negative. In all, about seven in 10 Canadians are somewhere in the neutral to positive range on these questions.

Could Mr. Bernier successfully galvanize the roughly three in 10 Canadians who are generally hostile to current immigration policy in this country? It’s possible. There is a prospective base for an anti-immigrant party: Our research suggests that about a third of Canadians would be more attracted than alienated by a party that argued immigration and multiculturalism have “gone too far.” But would those voters, scattered across Canada’s regions and parties, switch to such a message offered by a new party led by a libertarian Quebecker, and abandon whatever priorities and concerns have led them to their current political homes? Are enough of them angry enough about immigration – or sufficiently exasperated by a prime minister they see as unctuous and too quick to label any critic a racist?

Even if they were, the risk of alienating other voters and creating a hard ceiling for possible support is enormous. The calculus for knitting together a critical mass of seats for a meaningful presence in Parliament is difficult to see.

Still, after much discussion about the hypotheticals, Mr. Bernier appears set to help Canadians answer the question: Could the xenophobic nationalism we see in Europe and the United States happen here? We will soon find out.

Interact with The Globe