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Immigration, intolerance and the ‘populist paradox’

We may think most Canadians support the federal government's wide-open immigration policy, which has made Canada a beacon of tolerance in this increasingly intolerant world, but the reality is more worrying.

Support for immigration in Canada is soft and vulnerable. Governments must act to strengthen it, if this country is to avoid the polarization and conflict afflicting the United States and much of Europe.

These are the findings of Keith Banting, who researches public policy at Queen's University. Prof. Banting and I each gave a talk on immigration policy at a recent gathering sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada. This column is based on his remarks, which were much more interesting than mine.

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Six out of 10 Canadians support the federal government's target of accepting 300,000 immigrants a year, the highest intake per capita of any country in the developed world, according to a 2016 Environics poll. But four in 10 do not, and almost six in 10 believe that "too many immigrants do not adopt Canadian values." Support for both immigration and multiculturalism – which welcomes diverse cultures within the Canadian mosaic – is far from universal.

Canadians, Prof. Banting believes, are every bit as susceptible as Americans or Britons or Poles to a lethal combination of economic insecurity and cultural anxiety. Many of us fear we may lose our job to a machine or to a foreigner in an overseas factory, even as the 1 per cent accrue more and more of the common wealth.

And some descendants of Canada's settler culture fear that their Christian, European heritage is being overwhelmed by new arrivals from developing countries.

Meanwhile, a string of terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere contributes to the fear that some newcomers or their descendants seek to do us harm.

Drawing on attitudinal research by former graduate students and the Queen's University Multicultural Policy Index (http://www.queensu.ca/mcp), Prof. Banting paints a much more ambiguous picture of support for multiculturalism in Canada.

"The population could roughly be divided three ways," he argues. "One third of Canadians really don't support multiculturalism. One third are enthusiastic multiculturalists. And one third are what you could call 'soft multiculturalists': They support the current policies, but with reservations. And that support could change."

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Canadians living outside Quebec roughly correspond with Americans when asked whether they support such policies as allowing religious headgear for police officers and members of the military (about six in 10 oppose), requiring employers to make a special effort to hire minorities and immigrants (about four in 10 oppose), being allowed to wear a hijab (the Muslim head scarf) while walking down the street (about two in 10 oppose) and other markers of multicultural tolerance.

In responding to many of the questions, people in Quebec showed less multicultural tolerance than either Americans or Canadians outside Quebec.

Could such ambiguous support for multiculturalism lead to the creation of a populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant political party in Canada? Not immediately, Prof. Banting believes. For one thing, most Canadians who confess to economic insecurity do not blame immigrants for that insecurity. Eight Canadians in 10 agree with the statement: "The economic impact of immigrants is positive."

As well, Prof. Banting refers to what has been called the "populist paradox." There are so many immigrants and children of immigrants in Canada – 20 per cent of our population was not born in this country – that no political party can win government without their support.

These two factors make the rise of someone like a Donald Trump or a Marine Le Pen – the nativist French leader who came second in that country's recent presidential election – less likely in Canada.

But the undercurrents of dissatisfaction are real. Canadian governments must repeatedly and convincingly demonstrate the importance of immigration to economic growth in this country. And they must confront the causes of income inequality and the fears fuelled by it.

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Conservatives and progressives will address those priorities in different ways. But they must always keep them front and centre. Canada's future depends on it.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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