Are Canadians changing their attitude on migration due to COVID-19?
Canadians have a front row seat to the spectacle of a society in which immigration and racial diversity have become a political fissure, and they do not like what they see.
With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures
Canada has a reputation, both at home and around the world, as a beacon of tolerance when it comes to acceptance of immigrants and refugees. Part of this is due to the favourable attitudes of Canadians on the issue. Over the decade, the balance of opinion in Canada has become increasingly positive about the number of immigrants arriving in Canada and the benefits they bring to the country’s economy.
Is the dramatic impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, causing Canadians to reconsider their perspective? Are they drawing inward and protective? Are they becoming more wary of outsiders such as new immigrants who could show up to take precious jobs from those already here and introduce new health risks? Has the pandemic and its impacts diminished the public’s openness to newcomers?
The reality is that Canadians have actually become more open, not less so. Over the past year, the Canadian public has become increasingly accepting and supportive of immigrants and refugees, continuing a trend dating back several years but to levels not recorded in more than four decades of survey research.
The evidence comes from the Focus Canada surveys conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, a not-for-profit agency with a mandate to promote relevant and original public opinion and social research on the issues shaping Canada’s future. The latest survey – conducted with a sample of 2,000 Canadians in mid-September - finds that:
- A record high two-thirds of Canadians now reject the idea that immigration levels are too high, with this view strengthening across the country
- More than half agree immigration is essential to building the country’s population, compared with one in three who disagrees. This current sentiment reflects a sea change in perspective from the 1980s and 1990s, when most Canadians consistently took the opposite view.
- More than eight in ten now agree that immigration has a positive impact on the Canadian economy, and roughly the same proportion reject the idea that immigrants take jobs away from other Canadians.
- For the first time in the survey research dating back four decades, a plurality of Canadians rejects the ideas that too many refugees are not legitimate.
- Fewer than half of Canadians agree with the statement that too many immigrants are not adopting Canadian values, the smallest proportion expressing this view yet recorded since this question was first asked in 1993.
- By a five-to-one margin, the public believes immigration makes Canada a better country, not a worse one, and they are most likely to say this is because it makes for a more diverse multicultural place to live.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this latest trend is that it has taken place across the country and among all demographic segments of the population; in some cases, especially so where opinions about immigration have been the least positive, including Canadians with lower levels of education and income, as well as supporters of the federal Conservative Party. While divisions remain along regional, generational and political lines, in some cases these have diminished over the past year. This suggests that whatever fault lines may continue to divide Canadians, immigration is now less likely than before to be among them.
Rather than focusing inward, Canadians are expressing a greater sense of social solidarity in recognition that, in the face of the crisis, “we are all in this together.”
What lies behind this growing public support for immigration and refugees is not immediately apparent from the survey data itself, but reflects the continuation of a trend that dates back several years. The latest results may in part be a counter-intuitive response to the pandemic itself: rather than focusing inward, Canadians are expressing a greater sense of social solidarity in recognition that, in the face of the crisis, “we are all in this together.” This sentiment may have been reinforced by the attention given to the vital role during the pandemic played by newcomers to Canada on the front lines of healthcare and social services.
Moreover, Canadians may be embracing their country’s diversity in reaction to the alarming political instability south of the border. Canadians have a front row seat to the spectacle of a society in which immigration and racial diversity have become a political fissure, and they do not like what they see.
What is clear is that there is an emerging public consensus in recognizing that Canada’s economy (and one’s own livelihood) depends on making space for newcomers, especially at a time when the economy needs all the help it can get.
The data reported here is drawn from the Environics Institute’s Focus Canada public opinion research program (launched in 1976). The latest survey was conducted in partnership with the Faculty of Social Sciences’ IMPACT Project at the University of Ottawa and Century Initiative. This survey is based on telephone interviews conducted (via landline and cellphones) with 2,000 Canadians between September 8 and 23, 2020. A sample of this size drawn from the population produces results accurate to within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points in 19 out of 20 samples. For more information see www.environicsinstitute.org
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