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Canadians still pro-immigration, but souring on United States: survey

As debates rage through much of the developed world over whether to close doors to newcomers, Canadian attitudes toward immigration remain positive.

Canadians' sentiment towards immigration hasn't wavered in the past six months, with eight in 10 people still agreeing that immigrants benefit the economy, a national survey released exclusively to The Globe and Mail shows.

"Public opinion about immigration among Canadians generally has either remained stable or become even more positive" in the past half year, said Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research, which released the results publicly on Monday.

Read more: Why you can thank multiculturalism for Canada's strong population growth

The survey was conducted last month as a follow up to a similar set of questions in October. It sought to gauge whether public sentiments have shifted since the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and amid intensifying public debate in the United States and Europe over whether to tighten immigration rules. It comes as France's defeated presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, campaigned on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU platform, and as Britain preps for Brexit while Mr. Trump remains intent on deportations and building a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Some views in Canada have shifted, markedly. Attitudes towards the United States have soured, with fewer than half of Canadians now holding a favourable view of the United States – the lowest level since the survey started tracking this in 1982.

In opinions about the United States, "there's been a dramatic change," said Mr. Neuman. Nearly a fifth of respondents said they have already changed their travel plans for visiting the United States this year due to the current political climate there, and another 8 per cent are thinking about doing so.

On immigration, Canadians appear still supportive. When asked if there is too much immigration in Canada, more than six in 10 people disagreed, the highest level in nine years.

Nearly eight in 10 respondents said immigration has a positive impact on the economy, little changed from the previous survey and over the past 15 years. Young people are more likely to agree that immigration boosts the economy, along with those in Toronto, people born outside of Canada and those with higher levels of education and income.

Several reasons may explain why Canadians have not jumped on the nationalist, anti-immigrant bandwagon. Immigration is an integral part of this country's recent history and most Canadians are themselves newcomers or children of immigrants; Canada does not have to contend with mass migration at its borders; and it "doesn't have the same strong national identity as in many European countries," Mr. Neuman said.

Canada's "not perfect. We do have racism, and there are lots of challenges in terms of finding jobs – it's hardly utopia. But compared to those other countries, it has been relatively smooth," he said.

Census numbers last week show the pace of aging in Canada's population is accelerating, with the share of the working-age shrinking. That demographic shift will put more fiscal pressure on governments and, some experts say, underscores the need for Canada to maintain or increase its immigration levels.

The numbers come as Canada has accepted 40,100 Syrian refugees since November, 2015, about half of whom are government assisted and 14,000 of whom are privately sponsored. In recent months, more asylum seekers have crossed the border from the United States to claim refugee status.

The survey showed a growing share of people now disagree that refugee claimants are not legitimate. In fact, disagreement with this statement is at its highest level since 1987.

Opinions are split on whether too many immigrants are not adopting Canadian values. Just over half of respondents agree with that statement, a level that's unchanged from October, though still the lowest level recorded in more than two decades.

Respondents in Alberta were more cautious on immigration. The province "stands out as the one part of the country where attitudes have become more negative," since October, the survey noted. This could stem from economic concerns and more vulnerability in the jobs market – Calgary continues to have the highest jobless rate in Canada, at 9.3 per cent.

Respondents are divided on whether anti-government populism, underway elsewhere, could happen in Canada, with nearly half saying it is somewhat or very likely in the next few years.

Attitudes towards immigration differ according to party lines. A separate online survey by Abacus Data, conducted last month of 1,500 Canadians, shows Liberal voters tend to see immigration as helping Canada's future economic prospects; Conservatives see it as negative while New Democrats are evenly split. Those more likely to see immigration as beneficial are millennials and higher-income earners, it found. Its survey suggests a more divided opinion on immigration, with 53 per cent per cent saying it will help the economy and 47 per cent saying it is harmful.

The Environics survey is based on telephone interviews conducted with 2,002 Canadians between Apr. 3 and Apr. 15, and is considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points in 19 of 20 samples.

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