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opinion

According to census data released Wednesday, almost one-quarter – 23 per cent – of the people living in this country were not born here, the highest percentage since Confederation. That is the best possible news.

Along with helping ease labour shortages and soften the impact of an aging population, this latest generation of pioneers will help insulate our democracy from the demagogic threats that confront other Western nations. Immigrants will help save us from the worst of ourselves.

Almost every region of the country is taking in newcomers. According to Statistics Canada, more and more immigrants are settling in Atlantic Canada, which is helping to prevent population decline while bolstering the regional economy.

The worrying exception is Quebec. Resistance to immigration in French Canada, where preserving the language and the culture matters more for many than growth and renewal, is showing up in the census data.

Immigrants make up 15 per cent of the province’s population. The figure for Ontario is 30 per cent; for British Columbia 29 per cent; for Alberta 23 per cent.

Quebec will pay a price for partially closing its doors. Immigration can’t reverse the effects of an aging society, but it can help smooth the transition, providing workers to fill gaps in the labour market and to pay taxes that sustain social services.

But immigration’s greatest impact might be intangible. Many Western nations are grappling with populist, nativist movements that threaten democracy.

Put bluntly, some white people resent non-white newcomers and vote for politicians who promise to keep them out. Those politicians, in turn, often seek to corrupt democratic norms. For their supporters, social cohesion matters more than democracy.

A slew of Republican candidates in the Nov. 8 midterm elections refuse to accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential vote. Donald Trump clearly hopes to return as president. The republic might not survive that return.

Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, leads the most far-right government since Mussolini was deposed. In parts of Eastern Europe, democracies are fading away. The far right is on the rise in Sweden, Spain, Belgium and elsewhere.

Nothing like that is happening here. Yes, the so-called freedom convoy produced a great deal of sound and fury when it occupied downtown Ottawa in the winter. But Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, the only party that flirts with the white protest movement, received 5 per cent of the vote in the 2021 federal election.

High levels of immigration help insulate us from the worst of the far right. For one thing, people who are most opposed to immigrants – the sort who harbour false notions that newcomers take away jobs, end up on welfare and fail to integrate – tend to live in communities where they never see immigrants. But there aren’t many of those places left.

Nine per cent of the people in Moncton are immigrants. Thunder Bay is at 8 per cent. The figure is 14 per cent in Lethbridge, Alta. No wonder a recent poll showed seven in 10 Canadians are comfortable with the current immigration levels. The more people become used to living in diverse communities, the more at ease they are with diversity.

As well, it’s hard for a white nativist to win an election in a country where almost a quarter of the population is not native-born. Immigrants and their children are not going to vote for a political party that wants to limit their numbers and rights. The ballot box is a weapon that immigrants use to protect their interests, as they should.

The new census predicts that if present trends continue, within a couple of decades immigrants will make up about a third of the country. I predict the share will be higher. The Liberal government will be releasing its immigration targets shortly; we should expect a steady increase in intake even above the 451,000 planned for 2024. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says he is committed to high levels of immigration. He’d better mean it, if he ever wants to become prime minister.

Governments and the markets will be challenged to find places to put all these newcomers. It’s worth the challenge. Immigrants are the great insulators against the worst economic and political threats we face. The more we can bring in, the better.