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Opinion Polarized politics could shatter Canada’s fragile ‘virtuous cycle’ of immigration

Andrew Steele is a vice president at StrategyCorp and worked for both the federal and Ontario Liberal Party.

Support for diversity is fundamental to the Canadian sense of identity, our patriotism and our economic success – so much so, that it can be easy to forget just how exceptional Canadians’ peaceful view of diversity is among Western nations.

The United States sees hate crimes jump 226 per cent in counties that play host to rallies by President Donald Trump. The Paris banlieue suburbs are ghettos of disaffected non-citizens resentful of an antagonistic domestic culture. And in her masterful 2012 study of Canadian exceptionalism on immigration during the era of the Harper government, Irene Bloemraad – a sociology professor at University of California, Berkeley – wrote that it was “remarkable how peacefully Canada’s major cities have transitioned from being predominantly Christian and white to highly multicultural and multireligious.”

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But Dr. Bloemraad’s critical finding is this: “What at first seems a paradox – high support for immigration in a country with very high levels of new and existing migration – becomes an explanation. Immigrants to Canada generally feel welcomed. Given the predominantly permanent nature of Canadian immigration, government policy promotes integration because it is presumed that both sides are together for the long haul. At the same time, integration does not mean assimilation, given the policy and ideology of multiculturalism articulated by the government. Finally, the overwhelming majority of immigrants acquire citizenship, making it hard for anti-immigrant politicians to gain a foothold. Immigrant votes have consequences for electoral outcomes.”

This is the virtuous circle of Canadian immigration policy. Government policy promotes permanent migration over temporary; Immigrants feel welcomed; affinity with Canada overtakes the country of their birth; immigrants quickly become citizens and vote; political power of new Canadian voters mitigates anti-immigrant politics; the next group of migrants feels welcome in turn.

But now, the delicate cycle fuelling Canada’s exceptional success in creating a diverse and peaceful country of well-integrated newcomers – cultivated in no small part because of conservative parties that are moderate on immigration issues – may now be under threat.

In a new EKOS survey, 40 per cent of Canadians said too many of our immigrants are members of visible minorities, reflecting that “racial discrimination is now an equally important factor in views about immigration [as] the broader issue of immigration." (The EKOS survey of 1,045 Canadians had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

The results are more startling when attitudes to non-white migrants are broken down by party support. Of voters who prefer the Conservative Party, 69 per cent said too many immigrants are visible minorities. In contrast, the number of Liberal voters saying too many is just 15 per cent, with those who prefer the New Democrats at 27 per cent. That 52 percentage-point gap between Conservatives and Liberals was, as recently as 2013, only 13 points. There has been, it seems clear, a rapid politicization of opposition to non-white immigration.

This is a break from the past. Canada’s successful conservative parties were pro-immigration and celebrated diversity. The Harper government was laudably pro-immigrant compared with other centre-right parties globally, as were the Diefenbaker, Clark and Mulroney governments. In Ontario, the coalition that elevated Doug Ford to the premiership was notably diverse.

That makes sense, given our country’s long-time approach to immigration. As U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson said when he signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.”

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While politicians in the U.S. or Europe can run against migrant groups because they often don’t become citizens, immigrants to Canada do become citizens – and quickly. Conservatives can find support among new Canadians concerned about taxes or social policy, so long as their tone remains moderate on immigration and diversity generally.

Dr. Bloemraad concludes that “unless established immigrant Canadians completely turn their backs on would-be migrants, the significant share of immigrants in the voting population will likely mitigate radical anti-immigrant politics.”

Unfortunately, that might yet be happening. Max Bernier’s People’s Party received 11 per cent of the vote in diverse Burnaby, B.C., running on a slogan of “Canada for Canadians” and linking migrants with crime. Much of their support came from Chinese-Canadian voters. This is consistent with the EKOS survey that found just under one in five non-white Canadians felt there were too many visible minority migrants.

And it doesn’t require white nationalists with swastika tattoos to break the fragile virtuous circle. U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell is no racist, but he doesn’t hesitate to exploit immigration issues if it’s to the Republicans’ advantage, before and after Donald Trump was elected. The lesson from Europe and the U.S. is that if centre-right partisans succumb to anti-immigrant sentiment among potential voters, politicized hostility can create a vicious cycle of alienated migrants, assimilationist policy, low citizenship rates and fewer first-generation immigrant voters to oppose the next round of anti-immigrant campaigning.

Canada’s economic future depends on high levels of immigration, and continuing public permission for it requires great care by political leaders to avoid disrupting our unique and virtuous circle creating peaceful diversity.

For instance, when federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer inaccurately depicts a “crisis” of asylum-seekers, he also potentially inflames that specific issue and sours attitudes toward rule-following and highly skilled new Canadians. According to Dr. Bloemraad, support for all types of immigration can decline when issues of irregular migrants are in the political and media spotlight.

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In Quebec, Premier François Legault has argued for a religious symbol ban, saying, “If we want to avoid things getting out of control as happened with Trump and Le Pen, we have to give something to those who are a bit worried.” His “something,” it appears, includes normalizing unconstitutional infringements of minority rights with the notwithstanding clause.

No political party should be complacent, either. More than one in four New Democrats and one in six Liberals raised concerns about visible minority immigration. In some by-elections, they could be tempted to play to this sentiment, too.

Any party using immigration as a political cudgel threatens the Canadian exceptionalism that allows us to enjoy peaceful diversity. Instead, parties need to compete to address the economic anxieties and sense of powerlessness of all Canadians who are struggling in our globalized world.

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