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Tolerance for refugees has limits – even in Canada

Holding a mirror up to society and reflecting back what our society is, rather than what we think it is or want it to be, can be uncomfortable. Our latest poll on the resettlement of refugees – one that reveals Canadians do not appear to have an unlimited willingness or capacity to continue welcoming asylum-seekers at current rates – raised eyebrows and caused much wringing of hands. Where was this reticence coming from? And why?

When it comes to canvassing what role Canada should play in aiding those affected by the crisis in Syria, how many refugees we ought to take and how best to settle those coming from vastly different cultures, we found significant regional variations that look – at first glance – as though they play out along the traditional political spectrum.

British Columbians (18 per cent) are roughly twice as likely as Albertans (8 per cent) or those from Saskatchewan (10 per cent) to say that the 2017 refugee-acceptance target of 40,000 is too low and that the country should be taking in more. Those in Alberta and Saskatchewan are also most likely to disapprove of the Trudeau government's performance on the file. Half in each province say the government has done a poor job, compared to majorities in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada who say the opposite.

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While one might initially dismiss these views as "obvious" results coming from strongholds of both "big C" and "little c" conservatism, a deeper look points to a different possible conclusion: that opinion is also driven by what's happening on the ground.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizens Canada data, Saskatchewan accepts nearly 11 (10.8) Syrian refugees for every 10,000 citizens in the provincial population, while Alberta accepts 9.2 for every 10,000. Both provinces are above the Canadian average of 8.6 for every 10,000, and both are managing the fastest population growth rates in the country according to Statistics Canada's 2016 census data.

By contrast, the province most likely to opine that refugees would be welcome in their neighbourhoods, and among the most likely to say Canada should increase refugee targets is British Columbia. But B.C. is also taking in a lower relative share – 5.7 refugees for every 10,000 – than its western neighbours.

If one agrees with the premise that there is a so-called "moral high ground" to be found on this issue, who can claim it? The answer is to look east. Way east. While Atlantic Canadians profess opinions that make them among the most inclined to approve of the government's handling of the refugee file, and to want Canada to welcome even more refugees, they are also taking in the most per capita: 19.2 for every 10,000 in New Brunswick, 15.5 for every 10,000 on Prince Edward Island and 11.7 for every 10,000 in Nova Scotia.

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More than altruism, there are practicalities at play: As former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna wrote in The Globe and Mail last year, newcomers "need a home, Atlantic Canada needs people." Indeed, in 2014, New Brunswick had more deaths than births; the same goes for Nova Scotia. Perhaps this helps explain the intertwining of these two variables: Atlantic Canadians are taking the highest relative share of Syrian refugees, and they're also the most enthusiastic about potentially taking more. Just one-in-three (34 per cent) say that the government's 2017 targets are too high – seven points below the Canadian average of 41 per cent.

Ultimately, opinion about this evolving issue (our poll was conducted before stories of asylum-seekers crossing the border into small communities became a top story) will be driven by obvious factors such as political preference, along with more subtle ones, such as the realities of each community accepting and resettling refugees. We would all do well to remember this before wagging fingers too hard or awarding gold stars too enthusiastically.

Shachi Kurl is executive director and Dave Korzinski is researcher, Angus Reid Institute.

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