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Frank Graves is president of Ottawa-based EKOS Research Associates and an honourary fellow of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. Michael Valpy is a senior fellow of Massey College and a senior fellow in public policy at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

On the suddenly inflammatory topic of immigration, Canada has become a paradox.

A quarter-century ago, hostility toward immigrants was much higher than it is today – according to EKOS data, for example, it was clocking in at about 80 per cent in Toronto, where most immigrants went to live. People such as renowned novelist Neil Bissoondath argued that multiculturalism – diversity – was gravely eroding Canadian identity.

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A generation later, the evidence is that Mr. Bissoondath was wrong. Attachment to ethnic groups is declining precipitously, national identity has remained strong, immigrants quickly adapt to Canadian values, opposition to immigration is half what it was in the early 1990s, and Canada now has the highest percentage of foreign-born inhabitants since 1921, according to Statistics Canada.

The country shows every sign of having solved the postmodern riddle of diversity that has torn Europe and the U.S. apart. It should be a point of achievement. And yet – here’s that paradox – immigration looks very much like it will become the ballot-box issue, for the first time ever, of next fall’s federal election.

When Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux made his forecast public on Nov. 28, reporting that asylum-seekers walking across the Canadian-U.S. border at “unauthorized points” could cost the federal government more than $1-billion over three years, it was received as a political gift from heaven by the federal Conservatives. “Parliamentary Budget Officer: Illegal border crossings cost Canadian taxpayers up to $34,000 per person," party leader Andrew Scheer immediately tweeted.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel took to Twitter in lockstep to blame the issue on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his “expensive” tweet of a year back: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”

Mr. Trudeau’s message was portrayed as a green light for thousands to illegally cross the border (except what they’re doing is not illegal, it’s irregular or unauthorized and there’s a difference), to jump the refugee queue (which they’re not; Canada has two separate refugee queues, and the intake of one doesn’t affect the intake of the other), and to violate the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (which they’re not doing because the STCA doesn’t apply to those who just walk across the border at some unofficial, unguarded spot to claim asylum).

That partisan rhetoric aligns with last summer’s Conservative advertisement depicting a black man walking with his suitcase on little wheels toward a broken fence – the border – by way of a road paved with Mr. Trudeau’s diversity tweet; amid accusations of racism, the party withdrew the ad, with a spokesperson saying that it was never meant to be seen as applying to one racial group. And last week, Mr. Scheer took the issue further by saying he strongly opposed Mr. Trudeau’s intention to sign a UN agreement on a multinational approach to migration, saying – ominously but incorrectly – “it gives influence over Canada’s immigration to foreign entities.”

So why is this happening? For whom is Mr. Scheer beating the drum?

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The short answer is that the currents of what’s known as authoritarian, ordered populism that are lapping through the Western world have splashed ashore in Canada, carrying immigration – such a flashpoint issue in Europe and the U.S. – into the political realm of the multicultural True North Strong and Free.

Ordered populism is characterized by a sense of economic pessimism, anger at elites, deep mistrust of mainstream media, science and professionals; allergy to globalization, trade, and especially immigration, which has become a proxy for a range of issues. For example, according to EKOS Research data, if you oppose immigration, you’re also likely to dismiss climate change and probably most activities of government.

Ten months ahead of next October’s federal election, careful survey analysis by EKOS shows that immigration is the leading explanation for the shifting of voter support since the 2015 election from Mr. Trudeau’s governing Liberals to the Conservatives, who now have a slight lead.

Precisely why immigration has become a prime voter driver – and why exactly it is suddenly upsetting a substantial number of Canadians – is murky. But one thing is clear: It is an issue profoundly anchored in differences of social class and education and engulfed in surprising emotional intensity. Those Canadians who think the country is admitting too many newcomers are potently very, very angry about it.

According to EKOS data, Canadians are more receptive to investor immigrants, family re-unification immigrants, and refugees who turn up at Canadian missions and UN camps abroad (under the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program) than they are to those who turn up at Canadian airports on their own or take irregular walks across our borders to claim refuge under the In-Canada Asylum Program.

But the difference in “welcome-ability” between the groups is only about five to 10 percentage points. However, when Canadians are asked in blind experimental tests whether they’d prefer to live beside a white newcomer from Europe or brown or black newcomers from somewhere else, the differences balloon to 200 to 300 percentage points.

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The larger the cultural differences, as they’re expressed by skin colour and practices and beliefs, the larger the level of antipathy. Which, unfortunately, is to say: The more a person is “different” from white society, the more likely the average Canadian would want them to stay away.

EKOS surveys find that somewhere between 35 and 40 per cent of Canadians think there are too many immigrants coming to the country. Interestingly, if the question is slightly tweaked, and Canadians are asked to forget about the numbers coming in and just answer whether they think too many visible minorities are being admitted, the numbers are about the same.

Of those who say too many immigrants are coming into Canada and too many of them are visible minorities, 65 per cent identify as Conservative supporters, 20 per cent as New Democrats, and 13 per cent as Liberals. EKOS’s calculation is that Canadians who are really hardcore uncomfortable with immigration, particularly from people from non-European, non-white countries, comprise about 25 per cent of the population.

So why has the issue of immigration now become so emotional, and assumed such potency? Why does Statistics Canada report a record-high incidence of hate crimes? Why do the largely irrational fears of a minority – 25 per cent – have such traction?

It’s not because newcomers are leaping economically ahead of the native-born the moment they breathe Canadian air: They aren’t – numerous studies show many if not most immigrants get pushed to the bottom of the economic pile when they arrive. Moreover, opposition to immigration is found to be highest in places where the least number of migrants settle.

Part of the answer lies with high levels of inequality, part of the answer with tepid economic growth, and another part lying with a cooler-looking economic future. South of the border, leading MIT economist Daron Acemoglu has produced research showing that where jobs and wages have been lost to robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and automation, blue-collar workers, mainly males, have been driven toward racial resentment and ordered populist politics. That finding likely applies in Canada as well.

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Our wariness of others is part of our cognitive wiring as human beings. It’s a survival mechanism. But as civilization has progressed, we’ve learned to harness that for the most part and replace it with more rational points of view.

Except in a world increasingly characterized by economic and cultural insecurity – Trumpism, Brexit, the rise of authoritarian populist illiberal democracy across Europe – Canada is still tumbling into its own bog.

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