Despite a global pandemic that has destroyed economies and fanned nationalism around the world, Canadians say they are increasingly open to welcoming immigrants and refugees.
A new study from the polling firm Environics Institute found that attitudes among Canadians have become increasingly positive, even as millions remain out of work and the country faces grim economic projections.
“These views are not a blip. They’re not chance. They seem to be deeply rooted and widely spread,” said Andrew Parkin, executive director at Environics.
Since 1976, the Focus Canada survey, administered by Environics, has periodically sampled Canadians to gauge their views on the topic.
The latest results, released in early October, show for the first time ever that Canadians are more likely than not to reject the idea that immigrants are not adopting Canadian values.
At the same time, a large majority of Canadians continue to see immigrants as critical to the Canadian economy and don’t feel they take jobs away from other Canadians.
Close to one-third of Canadians say that too many refugee claimants are not “real” refugees – sharply down from 79% in 1987.
Researchers were curious to see if recent world events had dramatically shifted opinion, said Parkin.
“At first, we thought maybe Donald Trump would knock these positive trends. Maybe Canadians would catch the vibe of what’s going on in the States and start pulling back. That didn’t happen,” he said.
The emergence in 2019 of the anti-immigration People’s Party of Canada also failed to shift opinions.
Even the pandemic, which has so far millions of jobs and left Canadians in precarious financial situations, has not turned residents negative towards newcomers.
“If these views are not going to get knocked back by politics in the United States or a major health or an economic crisis, they’re probably not going to get knocked back,” he said.
The shifting attitudes are not found just in heavily populated and diverse cities like Toronto. Pollsters recorded increasing openness among older residents aligned with conservative political parties and in regions that have faced economic devastation.
Parkin pointed to Atlantic Canada, often compared to the US rust belt or northern England – rural areas where industry has left, the population is poorer and residents are older.
“In other countries, this all correlates with less openness to immigration. But in Atlantic Canada, they’ve realized that the more immigrants they have, the more businesses that are going to get started there.”
Part of this is probably the geographical realities of immigration to Canada. “For years, we’ve essentially had the luxury of being able to choose our immigrants because of where we’re located,” said Parkin, noting that Canada has largely favoured skilled immigrants.
At the same time, immigrants and visible minorities often face greater challenges navigating daily life in the country. Members of Canada’s Asian community have reported a significant increase in harassment following the arrival of the coronavirus – experiences corroborated by data from Statistics Canada.
And in recent months, leaders across the country have admitted that systemic racism places a heavy – often violent – burden on visible minorities.
While the survey results suggest an openness to newcomers, Parkin admits the underlying causes are difficult to determine.
Political unrest and xenophobia in America might be a key factor. Instead of Trump’s xenophobic views spilling over the border, Parkin suspects they have had the opposite effect in Canada. “It actually seems to have reinforced our sense of distinctiveness.”
The unifying message of the pandemic – that everyone is in the situation together – might have also contributed to this shift, along with the belief that immigrants help the economy.
“Increasingly, people see this not as an issue, but a question of identity,” he said. “And Canadians often see themselves as welcoming to people from all over the world.”