Skip to main content

Canadians are global outliers in holding almost unfailingly positive attitudes about immigration.

Across the world, particularly in countries that have seen large and sudden waves of migrants in recent years, public opinion has turned harshly negative toward newcomers. The opposite has happened here, even in Quebec. Despite big increases in the number of immigrants this country accepts annually, fewer and fewer Canadians think our immigration levels are too high.

That is the finding made by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, which has been polling Canadians on this issue since 1977. Back then, more than 60 per cent of respondents thought the country was accepting too many immigrants. Now, only 27 per cent feel that way.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Canada has had the luxury of selecting immigrants in an orderly fashion. We even “choose” most of our refugees based on applications made outside Canada. And the Canada-U.S. border is an oasis of calm compared to the U.S.-Mexico border, notwithstanding the steady stream of asylum seekers arriving via Roxham Road in Quebec in recent years.

There is another, perhaps even more salient, explanation for why Canadians are so bullish on immigration. Fully 44 per cent of us are first- or second-generation immigrants, according to 2021 census data compiled by Environics chief demographer Doug Norris.

In the Greater Toronto Area, the proportion of first- and second-generation newcomers is 79.6 per cent. In Vancouver, it is 72.5 per cent. Even in most of the country’s smaller urban centres, outside of Quebec, about half of residents are now immigrants or the children of immigrants.

You are much more likely to view immigration positively if you are an immigrant yourself or the child of one. Immigrants account for more – much more – of the population here than in any other developed country except for Australia. And the proportion is set to rise sharply – to as much as 34 per cent of Canada’s population in 2041, from 2021′s record level of 23 per cent, according to Statscan’s projections.

What’s not to like? Well, for a country that is already experiencing a severe housing-affordability crisis and a major infrastructure deficit, welcoming around 450,000 new permanent residents on an annual basis, on top of tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers and international students, involves significant challenges.

Unfortunately, there are few signs that policymakers in Ottawa have thought through how the country can accommodate this influx without further straining our already strained health-care and education systems. While immigration can offer a partial solution to severe shortages of nurses and teachers – if provinces move more rapidly to recognize their credentials – overall it creates more consumers than providers of health-care and education services.

In a study prepared last year for Quebec’s immigration ministry, economist Pierre Fortin threw cold water on the idea – advanced in 2016 by Ottawa’s Advisory Committee on Economic Growth – that higher immigration levels could help resolve intractable labour shortages that have only grown worse since then.

“Resorting to immigration can relieve worker shortages at the individual firm level, though the great administrative complexity and the long wait times often render this process ineffective; but, unfortunately, at the macroeconomic level, the [council’s] idea that immigration can reduce labour shortages because it increases the working-age population is nothing more than a big fallacy of composition,” Prof. Fortin wrote. “This idea is based on incomplete logic that ‘forgets’ that immigration ends up increasing the demand for labour and not only the supply of labour.”

Next week, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser is expected to announce Ottawa’s revised immigration targets for 2023, 2024 and 2025. That announcement needs to be followed by a more elaborate strategy than Canada has seen to date to enhance the country’s capacity to integrate ever-increasing numbers of newcomers. Otherwise, we are only asking for trouble down the road.

Canada has been spared the backlash against immigration experienced in other countries, in part because few politicians see any mileage in stoking resentment toward newcomers. That is likely to remain true as long as our multicultural suburbs continue to determine electoral outcomes. But no one should take it for granted.

With the country’s emergency rooms running beyond capacity, its housing shortage leaving too many people on the sidelines and its public infrastructure in a steady state of disrepair, it would be a mistake to assume that attitudes here toward immigration will always remain so positive.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe