Michael Adams is the founder and president of the non-profit Environics Institute for Survey Research. Keith Neuman is a senior associate with the institute.
Canada has long been an immigrant nation, starting more than four centuries ago when the first European settlers arrived on what many Indigenous peoples call Turtle Island. Today, Canada stands out as having one of the most ethnically diverse populations on the planet. The 2021 census identifies more than four in 10 of us as either first- or second-generation Canadians; roughly half of the people living in Toronto and Vancouver started their lives in another country. This remarkable evolution has not been without blemish, as we know from a history of prejudice and racism directed toward new waves of newcomers over our history, whether Irish, Chinese, East Indian, or Muslim; unfortunately, elements of xenophobia still persist in our society.
But the prevailing sentiment among Canadians is one of acceptance, viewing immigration and immigrants as good for, if not essential to, our country’s growth and diversity. Our research at the Environics Institute reveals that our multicultural character is among the strongest sources of national pride and identity. Globally, the Gallup World poll consistently ranks Canada as the top country for migrant acceptance among its citizens, and we are the second-most desired destination worldwide (just behind the United States) among people considering migration.
Our continuing Focus Canada public opinion research surveys have found solid public support for immigration over the past decade, with notable consistency despite disruptions from the global COVID-19 pandemic, contentious federal and provincial elections, and occasional economic downturns. Our trend lines have looked remarkably stable for a long time.
In 2023, however, something significant has changed. In our latest national survey conducted in September in partnership with the Century Initiative, more than four in 10 Canadians now agree with the statement “there is too much immigration to Canada.” This remains the minority view, but it has grown by 17 percentage points from 12 months ago – a dramatic shift in public opinion that is the most significant one-year change in this indicator in four decades of research.
The primary reason for this change appears to be the growing concern about the potential role that a large number of newcomers may be having on housing, now widely considered to be a crisis in terms of both availability and affordability. Immigration may well be just one of numerous factors affecting the housing market, but recent images of asylum seekers camped out on city streets and homeless encampments in parks are potent signs that infrastructure has not kept up with our ambitious immigration targets.
And it’s not just about housing. Our research found that Canadians are feeling negative about the direction the country is heading, growing concerns about inflation and the cost of living, and diminished confidence in the ability of governments to address the country’s challenges ahead.
At the same time, our research shows no comparable change in how Canadians feel about immigrants and refugees, and what they contribute to the country. A strong majority continues to say that immigration has a positive impact on the country’s economy. Locally, Canadians across the country say immigrants make their own community a better place rather than a worse one, by a wide margin.
What are we to make of this latest change in public sentiment? Canadians are now, for the first time in decades and perhaps the country’s history, increasingly questioning immigration levels from the perspective of what they believe the country can manage in terms of resources, at a time when housing, our health care system and other infrastructure such as transit are under stress. The public’s focus now appears to be shifting beyond concerns about what type of immigrant is accepted, to how many are arriving in their communities.
Up until now, we would have considered anyone who says there is too much immigration to Canada to be expressing a xenophobic sentiment, reflecting fear or rejection of those seen as too different because of race, religion, or culture. This still applies for some, but we must now recognize that the public discourse has changed – that it is increasingly about the country’s capacity to receive the number of newcomers arriving, as well as who it is we are admitting. Some economists and policy experts insist that high immigration levels are essential to maintaining population growth and supporting key labour markets, but our social consensus on immigration and diversity depends on creating a well-functioning society for both Canadians who are already here as well as those still to come.