Can Canada Avoid European-Style Immigration Backlash?

Can Canada avoid European-style immigration backlash?

By Peter O'Neil,
Postmedia News Europe Correspondent,
Postmedia News September 24, 2010

PARIS—A wave of hostility toward immigrants across Europe has shaken the foundations of the continent's political system, raising questions among some analysts about whether Canada with twice as many newcomers as most European countries can continue to avoid such a social rupture.

The latest example was the election breakthrough Sunday of an anti-immigrant party in Sweden, long a global model for tolerance and social justice.

Fear and anger over immigrants, especially Muslims and Roma, have also had a major impact on politics and policy in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Denmark.

The debate is often brutally divisive. The Sweden Party's controversial television ad, which helped the party win six per cent of the vote and 20 seats, showed an elderly Swedish woman looking fearful, helpless and hobbling with the aid of an able-walker walking toward bureaucrats providing government benefits.

She is overtaken by a half-dozen sinister-looking young women in black burkas, pushing black baby carriages as they rush ahead of her to grab the government dole.

“Now you have a choice,” the ad states in a country where 14 per cent of the population is foreign-born, with a disproportionate number being refugees.

“You can choose the immigration brake instead of the pensions brake.”

Immigration experts say there's no imminent danger of Canada heading down Europe's increasingly ugly path even though Canada is currently accepting 250,000 immigrants, plus about 150,000 temporary foreign workers, annually. Since 1990 Canada has had the highest per capita intake rate in the world, according to the Fraser Institute.

Canada, unlike most European countries, has a political and electoral system not at all conducive to parties or politicians that focus on a single issue.

In Sweden, for example, the far-right party only gained seats because, like many European countries, it uses the proportional representation system for elections, giving parties a percentage of seats based on their take of the vote.

A party getting that many votes in Canada wouldn't have a prayer of winning seats.

“Canada is not a multicultural paradise,” wrote Queen's University political scientist Keith Banting, in a recent essay comparing the European anti-immigrant backlash to Canada's situation.

“But despite a variety of stresses and strains, there is little evidence that Canada is facing deep new divisions, pervasive radicalism or an illiberal challenge to its core democratic culture.”

But others say there are legitimate concerns that the sheer weight of Canada's vast flow of new arrivals, and the inability of recent immigrants to catch up to other Canadians in earnings capability, will eventually trigger social tensions.

Statistics Canada reported earlier this year that Canada's foreign-born population will soar from 20 per cent in 2006 to 25-28 per cent by 2031, with the vast majority of the newcomers squeezing into major cities.

By 2031, visible minorities will make up 63 per cent of Toronto's population, 59 per cent of Vancouver's and 31 per cent of Montreal's.

An Angus Reid Internet poll done earlier this month, in the wake of the arrival of Sri Lankan boat people in B.C., found that 46 per cent of Canadians surveyed think immigration has a negative impact on Canada, compared to 34 per cent who viewed it positively.

The poll of 1,007 people was conducted Sept. 2-3 and has an error margin of 3.1 percentage points, according to the polling firm.

“We haven't reached the stage Europe has, but we're treading on increasingly delicate ground and we need to talk about this publicly,” said Martin Collacott, a former Canadian ambassador who analyzes immigration issues for the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute.

The conservative think-tank has presented economic analyses arguing the current high immigration rate is a drain on the Canadian economy and, contrary to what most politicians argue, does next to nothing to offset problems dealing with the aging population.

Collacott said legitimate public concerns are stifled by a “conspiracy of silence” that has prevented Canadian politicians of all stripes from dealing with the issue openly.

Politicians don't consider changing the system, he argues, because Canadian employers love the flow of cheap labour. And he said politicians from all parties rely on immigrant group support in many cities, and fear they'll be branded racist as Preston Manning's Reform party was in the early 1990s when Manning called for lower immigration levels.

One recent example of the political sensitivities occurred last month when Rob Ford, the populist front-runner in the Toronto mayoralty race made a controversial comment.

“We can't even deal with the 2.5 million people in this city,” he said during a campaign debate. “I think it's more important that we take care of the people now before we start bringing in more.”

The Globe and Mail portrayed the comments as an “incendiary” stand on immigration, and rival candidates called on Ford to apologize and even to withdraw his candidacy.

Banting, while not sharing the Fraser Institute's call for annual immigration intake totals to slide to 40,000-100,000 from the current level of a quarter of a million new Canadians, does agree that there needs to be more public debate over immigration issues.

He said few know that the federal government decentralized and effectively privatized immigrant selection by giving employers, operating through provincial governments, a major role in the process.

“I am really struck by how little debate there seems to be about the biggest change in immigration policy in a generation.”

There are currently about 300,000 temporary workers in Canada and while the skilled among them are able to apply for permanent residency, that option isn't open to the unskilled.

“If they do not leave at the end of their employment, we might see the emergence of an undocumented underclass,” Banting said.

“The Europeans learned in the 1970s and 1980s that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary guest worker.”

While Banting said he supports the call for more debate he doesn't think groups like the Fraser Institute, or any politician, could seriously challenge the national consensus on immigration levels.

In agreement is University of B.C. political scientist Ken Carty, a specialist on political parties and grassroots politics.

Carty noted that Canada was the only country in a major 2003 international survey where a majority viewed immigration positively and didn't want cuts.

A majority of respondents in the eight other countries polled, including the U.S., Britain, Germany and Sweden, supported reduced immigration levels, felt that immigration increased crime, and didn't think immigrants were good for the economy.

“To the extent that continues, it suggests that the immigrant nature of the country is widely understood and appreciated,” he told Postmedia News.

“It is not likely to provide a base for successful anti-immigrant politics.”