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It’s a stunning, yet entirely predictable, turnaround in public opinion.

Less than a year ago, polling by Nanos Research showed 61 per cent of Canadians thought that immigration levels should either be increased or stay the same, in keeping with a decades-old consensus that welcomes newcomers to this country.

Public opinion has inverted, according to Nanos. In December, 61 per cent of Canadians said immigration levels should be reduced, with just 34 per cent still believing that Canada should maintain or increase the number of newcomers.

There is scant precedent for such a volte-face in public opinion. When asked, Nanos chairman Nik Nanos pointed to the free-trade debate of the 1980s, when widespread opposition morphed into solid support. That switch happened because of political leadership. The reverse on immigration has resulted from a lack.

For years, the Liberals chose to ignore the obvious contradiction of boosting immigration numbers amid a housing shortage that has sent home prices and rents soaring. It’s not as if the government wasn’t warned: The Canadian Press reported on Thursday that officials at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada explicitly flagged the risk in 2022 as the Liberals developed immigration targets through to 2025. (Ultimately, that would result in increasing annual permanent migration to 500,000 in 2025 from 341,180 in 2019.)

The briefing from public servants could not have been clearer: “In Canada, population growth has exceeded the growth in available housing units,” continuing on to say that “rapid increases put pressure on health care and affordable housing.”

Perhaps cabinet never heard that briefing; perhaps they simply didn’t listen. In any case, the federal government did not act on those warnings, until very recently.

The Liberals have, since late summer, started to take significant action on the housing file. Their moves are sound but it will take several years for those efforts to have a significant effect in easing the supply crunch.

So far on immigration, there have only been the most tentative of measures: no boost to permanent immigration targets in 2026, following years of increases; and a doubling of the amount of financial resources that international students must have before entering the country.

The Liberals have to date been unwilling to make the bigger reforms needed to roll back the sharp rise in the number of temporary workers and international students. Canada would have a housing crisis even without those hundreds of thousands of temporary workers and students. But they have added to housing demand and intensified price pressures.

In that light, the attitudes in the Nanos survey are rather rational, and indeed somewhat encouraging. The top reason for wanting immigration levels ratcheted down is the housing crisis, with nearly a third of respondents citing a lack of housing. A lack of social infrastructure is a close second.

That indicates Canadians have practical concerns about the current pace of immigration, not ideological opposition. But that forbearance is not a given; if housing, the cost of living and economic hardship become further interlaced with immigration, the ultimate consequences are unpredictable.

Ottawa can do more on housing, but immigration policy is where it is most deficient. The first obvious step is to take aggressive action to reduce the number of temporary migrants. As this space has previously argued, the federal government should eliminate the ability of international students to work off-campus. At a stroke, that would eliminate the incentives to issue dodgy diplomas from strip malls and restore the program to its proper function.

Similarly, the temporary foreign worker program needs to radically downsized and limited to sectors that have critical labour needs, such as agriculture. Businesses should not be subsidized through the import of cheap labour, particularly when the mobility rights of those workers are curtailed.

Generations of immigrants have helped to build Canada, and to define this country. But the widespread support for immigration underpinning that decades-long success story is showing signs of strain.

Ottawa needs to change course, quickly, to safeguard that consensus.

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