This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20170226.
It is a truth that many won’t speak, but it is time to recognize: a significant chunk of our population feels anxious and uncomfortable with our current approach to immigration.
In many ways, it is surprising the Canadian d’tente over immigration and identity issues has lasted this long.
While Canada has avoided the vitriolic debate that has roiled other developed countries, it is na’ve to believe this unusual harmony will last.
The number of immigrants admitted to Canada has steadily risen under successive governments, with little public dialogue beyond a tacit recognition that it was necessary for economic growth. Liberal and Conservative governments alike have limited changes in immigration policy to tinkering around the edges.
Yet in many developed nations, debate about immigration and national values has overtaken the public agenda. Successful populist campaigns worldwide have been rooted in issues surrounding immigration and identity.
Donald Trump’s victory, Brexit, and the rise of populist politicians across Europe have all centred in large part on immigration.
A highly emotional subject, it pits the gut feelings of people living in hard-hit economic areas against those in well-to-do urban centres, polarizing citizens among class lines. The result is a potent clash that reverberates throughout societies.
All of which makes it all the more surprising that successive governments of Canada have managed to sail serenely on. But make no mistake: The same questions that rocked France, the U.K., and the United States are swirling beneath the surface here as well.
We saw brief flashes of this during the last days of Stephen Harper’s regime. Two issues that emerged in the final days of that government were the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies and while voting, and increasing the number of refugees accepted into Canada.
While many election analysts have since decided Harper’s government was defeated in no small part due to its stance on these issues, the data contradicts that point of view. Veterans of the campaigns point out that both public and internal polls indicated those positions actually garnered significant support.
While the Conservatives were strongly outpolled by the Liberals on kitchen-table issues, such as the economy and taxes, they remained buoyant on issues of security and immigration, allowing them to remain competitive even after 10 years of controversial governance.
That revelation should not be surprising, given recent electoral results across the world.
For their strong stances on the issues, campaigns such as Brexit and that of Donald Trump were reviled, mocked and dismissed by the establishment as racist and nationalistic.
And yet, on election day, voters delivered a different verdict. Both campaigns won on the backs of blue-collar voters in areas that had been left behind economically, and who believed their nations’ shine had been dulled. Making America Great Again and Taking Control of the U.K. empowered voters whose voice had been lost.
And that was just the campaign. Now, there is governing. For instance, on the weekend that Trump temporarily banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, the uprising was swift. The media castigated Trump’s executive order. Protesters stormed across the country, shutting down airports. Twitter was alight with mocking and derisive posts. One could be forgiven for thinking it was the beginning of the end of Trump’s presidency.
And yet when polls began to trickle out in the days following, it revealed a clear, albeit divided, picture: Slightly more Americans supported President Trump’s executive order than opposed it.
The results offered a fascinating look at an uprising against a discredited policy; an uprising that was actually contradicted by the popular support of the American people.
Trump has, for now at least, fundamentally altered the debate around immigration and issues of identity in the United States. Brexit has done the same in the United Kingdom. Similar trajectory-changing shifts across Europe have occurred or are occurring.
And similarly raucous debates have begun here at home.
The Conservative leadership race has abruptly tacked away from the traditionally safe territory of taxes and balanced budgets. Instead, its candidates have begun to tread into issues of immigration and national values. And, if polls are to believed, they are doing so with the popular support of Canadians.
While the media, academics, Twitter, and elected establishment recoiled at Kellie Leitch’s proposal to interview all immigrants face-to-face to test their commitment to Canadian values, polls consistently have indicated that a majority of Canadians supported Leitch’s point-of-view.
It seems the Conservative leadership race has clued in to the fact there is an untapped reserve of policy angst over issues of Canadian identity. It is a truth that many won’t speak, but it is time to recognize: a significant chunk of our population feels anxious and uncomfortable with our current approach to immigration. That discontent will only grow as the media continues to frame the issue in a way that discounts those opinions.
It was only a matter of time. Identity politics and immigration are about to take up considerably more room at Canada’s policy table.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.