Polls show a shift in attitude about immigration

Current poll numbers capture a moment in time, but Canadians’ growing disenchantment with immigration and refugee numbers are likely part of a trend.

Concerns about dubious claimants at the border, a wave of refugees and wider issues of terrorism, coupled with longstanding economic woes, have certainly influenced the latest Angus Reid Institute findings. Half of Canadians now say immigration targets – 310,000 this year – are too high, up from 33 per cent who felt that way just four years ago. Today, less than a third agree levels are about right.

Over the last four decades in which the institute has been tracking Canadians’ attitudes to immigration, the level of support for cutting immigration levels has averaged about 25 per cent. The latest trend is sharply upwards, though it remains to be seen if impressions will eventually return to historic levels. That may be unlikely given that Ottawa is looking to boost immigration further still, with a target of 340,000 people by 2020.

Note, too, that attitudes are hardening even towards refugees and humanitarian cases. About 40 per cent of Canadians want the government to lower the number, with about a third wanting to maintain the status quo.

Chances are pretty good we’ll see additional backlash from the federal government’s plan to boost the number of immigrants and refugees coming into Canada. There’s already been a negative response to the Liberals loosening some of the requirements that newcomers be the ones most likely to contribute to the economy and society. There have been more family reunifications, fewer marketable skill prerequisites.

This comes at a cost, short- and long-term.

Once net contributors to the economy, immigrants have been an overall drain for decades now, the result of welfare state provisions that didn’t exist for previous waves of new arrivals. Combined with a faltering economy, the decline of the middle class and generally poor prospects for the future, the newcomers are unlikely to contribute in the way the once did, the ongoing trope of  Canada having been built by immigrants.

There are direct costs that amount to tens of billions of dollars. Indirectly, higher immigration tends to suppress everyone’s wages, transferring some $3.5 billion in wealth to employers from employees each year.

Then there’s the issue of rising real estate prices, particularly in markets where immigrants are prone to form enclaves – think Toronto and Vancouver. That boosts house prices and keeps younger Canadians out of the market.

Increasingly, these enclaves can lead to cultural issues given the changing demographics of immigration in the last few decades. Certainly the inherent problems are exacerbated by today’s political climate, but in the longer-term there could be major conflicts of the type we see growing in Europe.

While Canada has done a better job of integrating newcomers into its population than have countries in Western Europe, many of the problems could easily surface here. Canada’s immigration is the highest per capita level in the world. Government officials, however, can provide no good reason for doing so. We continue to hear that high immigration levels are needed to offset an aging population, but little about the unsustainable concept of growth.

If the trend reflected in the polls continues, changes will come for political reasons long before the practicalities are acknowledged.

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