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Canada at a crossroads: Understanding the shifting sands of immigration attitudes

by Mohsen Javdani, Associate Professor of Economics, School of Public Policy and Urban Studies Program, Simon Fraser University   

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Canadians favouring reduced immigration dropped 41% from 1988 to 2008 but rose to 40% by 2019, research.

Montri Thipsorn via Adobe Stock

Canada stands at a crossroads as its 157th birthday approaches. It’s navigating shifting immigration attitudes amid global and domestic challenges.

The ongoing politicization and polarization around immigration in Canada underscores a critical juncture for a country celebrated for its diversity. As Canadians grapple with economic insecurity, housing crises, health-care shortages and social tensions, the immigration debate tests the nation’s values and future direction.

Recent research I conducted with two colleagues, drawing from more than three decades of data, sheds light on evolving Canadian attitudes toward immigration. Between 1988 and 2008, there was a notable 41 per cent decline in Canadians who favoured reducing immigration numbers. Yet, post-2008, this trend shifted, with Canadians who wanted reduced immigration levels rising to 40 per cent by 2019.

This development signals more than just changing preferences; there are deeper socio-psychological and political dynamics shaping views on immigration.

Judgments on who merits inclusion

But let’s simplify that socio-psychological jargon. Imagine society as a bustling potluck gathering. You arrive with your dish — packed with your beliefs, values and biases. Looking around, you’re judging everyone’s contributions and figuring out where you fit in.

Social identity theory suggests it’s natural to categorize ourselves into “us” versus “them” using familiar facets of our identity, such as religion and ethnicity. Driven by our need for a positive self-image and convinced that what we have to offer is the best, we sometimes snub outsiders.

This dynamic suggests the immigration debate delves into deeper territories of social identity. It’s about who we believe merits inclusion in our society, not just as an economic question.

Our findings suggest that economic concerns often cited in the immigration debate are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, Canadians’ opinions on immigration are deeply influenced by aspects like religion, ethnicity, personal and familial immigration history and political leanings.

Our research finds, for example, that Christians show the least support for immigration. In contrast, Muslims — the second-largest religious group in Canada after Christians — are the most supportive of immigration. Jewish Canadians, atheists and agnostics also show strong support.

Ethnicity and immigration history also play pivotal roles in shaping our social identity. Our research indicates white people born in Canada exhibit a significantly stronger preference towards decreased immigration compared to white immigrants and ethnic minorities.

In terms of geography, it found that Nova Scotians have the most favourable sentiments about immigration, whereas Alberta and Ontario exhibit the most negative sentiments in Canada.

This suggests a varying landscape of belonging and acceptance. Immigrants and ethnic minorities show greater openness to new immigration, likely mirroring their journeys of settling and integrating into Canadian society.

The politics of immigration

One of our most striking findings is the increasing political polarization over immigration. Our research has found that since 2006, political party identification has emerged as the foremost factor in explaining Canadians’ differing views on immigration.

This polarization highlights that immigration is not just a social issue, but also a political tool. It is often framed and politicized seemingly to galvanize party bases rather than address the complexities of immigration and integration.

Political parties link immigration to pressures on public finances or housing shortages during difficult periods. This amplifies anti-immigration sentiments, even if there’s no direct causation. This tactic also elevates immigration as a focal issue, intertwining it with prevailing concerns and magnifying its perceived negative impact on society.

Our study underscores the complexity of the debate. It’s not just about numbers or economics, but about deeper socio-psychological currents and political strategies.

So, what’s the takeaway for Canada? Firstly, our findings are a wakeup call for political leaders, policymakers and the wider community. The rise in negative sentiments about immigration, especially amid challenging conditions, could have far-reaching consequences for Canada’s social harmony and economic prosperity.

Addressing anti-immigration sentiments requires engaging deeply with the socio-psychological factors that mounting evidence suggests are critical. Education is key, as studies consistently show.

Effective response

Our vision of education, however, extends beyond traditional classrooms and involves the gradual development of an appreciation for diverse perspectives, openness and tolerance for change and diversity.

The significance of media and political parties in shaping public opinions cannot be overlooked. The way immigration is politicized through narratives of national security, economic risks and cultural identity influences both policy decisions and the public’s understanding of these policies. That means this conversation is as much a political issue as a policy challenge.

An effective response requires a holistic strategy that integrates policy initiatives with efforts to shift political and societal narratives toward more inclusive and accurate representations of immigration and its myriad contributions to society.

Our reaction to immigration should elevate above the narrow, self-serving question of “what’s in it for us?” This perspective narrowly views immigrants as mere economic assets, neglecting their wide-ranging contributions to society.

This viewpoint becomes particularly problematic when acknowledging that the lands currently known as Canada were first inhabited by Indigenous Peoples. As non-Indigenous people living in Canada, we all share the status of settlers, inheriting a responsibility from our colonial past. This history obliges us to extend a welcome embodying generosity and respect while looking toward our collective future.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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