Migrant Futures

Are Canadians really open to more migration in the future?

Canada’s embrace of territorial closure during the COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a spike in xenophobia and racism.

Phil Triadafilopoulos
9 December 2020, 7.37am
Closed store at Square One Shopping Center in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, 28 Nov. 2020
Zou Zheng/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved
Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

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

How are we to make sense of Canadian immigration policymaking during the COVID-19 pandemic? On the one hand, the Trudeau government has pledged to increase both its already ambitious admissions target for 2020 and its annual immigration levels in the next three years. The government’s expansive immigration strategy has earned the praise of immigration boosters while generating little in the way of skepticism (let alone criticism) from opposition parties. For the most part, public opinion has also fallen into line. Yet, paradoxically, the Government of Canada’s open approach to migration of all kinds has been marked by unprecedented territorial closure.

The same contradiction is evident among Canadians: their ongoing support of official multiculturalism has also coincided with increases in racist discrimination. A frank appraisal of Canada’s immigration policy must acknowledge the juxtaposition of aspirational openness, on the one hand, and de facto closure and growing hostility, on the other. Doing so makes it clear that any hope of returning to business as usual after the pandemic may be misplaced.

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Canada has earned a global reputation for administering an expansive immigration policy. Bucking the global trend toward greater restrictiveness in the years following the global economic crisis of 2008-09, annual admissions rose steadily under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s right-of-centre governments from 2008 to 2015. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s centre-left Liberal Party governments have introduced even more ambitious targets. These significant increases in immigration levels have been supported by all of Canada’s major political parties. Canadian governments, regardless of their partisan orientation, have also stood firm in their support of Canada’s policy of official multiculturalism, even as leaders of other liberal democracies have cast multiculturalism as a failed and dangerous experiment. Recent efforts to strike a more restrictive stance on immigration, notably by the populist People’s Party of Canada in the 2019 federal election, have come to naught.

Any hope of returning to business as usual after the pandemic may be misplaced

Public support appears to have held, despite the challenges raised by the pandemic. The most recent iteration of the Environics Institute for Survey Research’s long-running “Focus Canada” survey (published in October) revealed that,

[S]trong and increasing majorities of Canadians express comfort with current immigration levels, see immigrants as good for the Canadian economy and not threats to other people’s jobs, and believe that immigration is essential to building the country’s population … 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 because it makes for a more diverse multicultural place to live.

In their commentary for this series, the Environics Institute’s Andrew Parkin and Keith Neuman note that this increase in support for immigration “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’.”

As we move into the second wave of the pandemic, the fragility of this solidarity is clear. Spikes in infections have led to new lockdowns, which, in turn, have slowed the summer economic recovery. Although the national unemployment rate has come down from a high of over 13% in April 2020, it remains stuck at about 9%. Employment growth has stalled and long-term unemployment has increased. Canadians find themselves living through a period of profound economic dislocation, unlike any in recent memory.

Moves aimed at containing the pandemic have also transformed Canada’s approach to migration. Canadians live in a country that has effectively shut itself off from the world. Despite the announcement of ambitious immigration targets, actual admissions shrank by 64% in the second quarter of 2020. The admission of resettled refugees and protected persons declined by 83%. Trips by residents of countries other than the United States to Canada fell by almost 96% from September 2019 to September 2020.

The current status quo is one of extraordinary closure, marked by popular support for strict controls and increased racism

A majority of Canadians appear to support strict border controls. According to a Nanos Research poll, 81% of Canadians “believe the Canada-US border should stay closed for the foreseeable future.” A 29 October 2020 report by the Association for Canadian Studies noted that 52% of Canadians would prefer to maintain currently low levels of immigration over the next twelve months. Only 24% supported “gradually [increasing] immigration levels” over the same period. An August 2020 survey by researchers at McMaster University and Dynata Research arrived at similar results.

Canada’s embrace of territorial closure has coincided with a spike in xenophobia and racism. A July 2020 poll by IPSOS Global Public Affairs revealed that nearly 30% of Canadians reported that they had “personally been a victim of racism, up five points since [2019].” A survey by the Angus Reid Institute noted that 50% of 500 respondents of Chinese descent had been “called names or insulted as a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak … [A] plurality (43%) further say they [had] been threatened or intimidated.” A Statistics Canada report drawing on responses submitted from “more than 43,000 Canadians … to a crowdsourcing data collection [research project] on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canadian’s perceptions of safety” found that

The proportion of visible minority participants (18%) who perceived an increase in the frequency of harassment or attacks based on race, ethnicity or skin colour was three times larger than the proportion among the rest of the population (6%) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This difference was most pronounced among Chinese (30%), Korean (27%), and Southeast Asian (19%) participants.

My fear is that aspirational openness may lead to misplaced confidence in a relatively painless return to business as usual once the pandemic has lifted. This is not to say that the reasoning underlying the decision to expand Canada’s immigration program in the coming years is not compelling. It is to draw our attention to the fact that the current status quo is one of extraordinary closure, marked by popular support for strict controls and increased racism. The pandemic has amplified tendencies that have long been present in Canadians’ opinions on immigration: support for mass immigration has depended on the strict policing of irregular flows; and favorable views on multiculturalism have always included demands that immigrants adopt “Canadian values.” This reality needs to be acknowledged and dealt with if Canada is to successfully resume its immigration program in a post-pandemic world.

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