If the Ontario election campaign reflected anything about the politics of immigration in this country, it was the generally positive role that it plays. Most notably, the opposition issue of supposedly unfair benefits to “foreign workers” was a spectacular flop because the public holds a fairly positive view of immigrants.
This and the increased prominence of new Canadians as candidates were cheerful and encouraging reminders of the changing face of Canadian politics, and also of Canadians’ general openness to immigration.
Canadians’ support for immigration has been consistently high over the past 15 to 20 years when immigration levels have also been high. In 2010, support for immigration was at its highest since 1957, according to the findings of my recent study, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP). The study shows that majority Canadian support for high levels of immigration, at 58 per cent, has been remarkably stable over time and relatively unaffected by recessions, the threat of terrorism and negative reports on specific immigrant groups.
Support is particularly strong among more educated Canadians, the young, the fully employed and men.
Regionally, Atlantic Canada, Quebec and the Prairies show the highest rates of support, at 63 per cent, 62 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively, compared with 54 per cent and 57 per cent in Ontario and British Columbia. There is also majority support in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where a high concentration of new immigrants settle.
Two important sources of pro-immigration sentiment can account for this support. One is the belief in immigration as an economic benefit to Canada, and the other is pride in Canadian multiculturalism. These perceptions reinforce each other, and both have deeper roots.
The perception of economic benefit — prevalent in all regions — reflects general economic optimism and personal economic success. Those who feel multiculturalism is important to Canadian identity are significantly more likely to support current immigration levels. Data show that immigration is a deeply rooted ideal in the Canadian psyche — it has withstood much criticism of the policy.
In a comparison of important national symbols, multiculturalism ranked behind national parks, health care, the flag and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (which were all identified in the 2010 Focus Canada survey as very or somewhat important by more than 90 per cent of respondents); it ranked at about the same level as the national anthem, Canadian literature and music and the RCMP; but it placed above hockey, bilingualism, the national capital, the CBC and the Queen (rated as very or somewhat important by less than 80 per cent of respondents). Multiculturalism seems to be widely viewed as a distinctive and important aspect of the country.
Supporters of multiculturalism nevertheless hope that immigrants will become part of Canadian mainstream society. This is important to the meaning and purpose of multiculturalism in Canada: it is a strategy to encourage the incorporation of immigrants.
The evidence also suggests that many of these issues are seen in terms of Canada’s difference from the United States, providing further reinforcement of the links to national identity.
All of Canada’s federal political parties have pro-immigration policies. However, Conservative party supporters more often have reservations about current immigration levels based on attitudes toward multiculturalism and broader social values. All in all, the multiple supports for immigration may help account for the stability of public opinion over time, providing a buffer against anti immigration trends.
This makes Canada distinct from other immigrant host countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, which are latecomers to immigration and have tended to see immigration as an unwelcome occurrence.
The primary importance of the economic benefit of immigrants to the country, and the fact that it carries so much weight in both English and French Canada and across many social groups, suggest that high levels of immigration will be part of Canadian policy for some time to come. Strengthening these two fundamental pillars, the belief that immigration is good for the economy and pride in the country’s multicultural identity, will ensure the continued success of the Canadian approach.
Jeffrey Reitz is the author of Pro-Immigration Canada: Social and Economic Roots of Popular Views, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy. He is also R.F. Harney Professor of Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs, at the University of Toronto.
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