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How Can We Avoid Populism in Canada?

Aug 22, 2017
Kareem El-Assal Kareem El-Assal
Senior Research Associate and
Senior Network Manager, Immigration

Despite rising populist tides abroad and a recent increase in asylum claims made in Manitoba and Quebec, public support for immigration remains robust in Canada. But we can not rest on our laurels and assume that Canada is immune from populism.

At our recent Canadian Immigration Summit 2017, Dr. Keith Banting of Queen’s University explored the causes of populism and how Canada can avoid succumbing to it.

Three Causes of Populism

During his presentation, Banting explained that the three drivers of populism are economic, cultural, and political.

If a segment of a population is economically and culturally insecure, and if the right political incentives are in place, populist leaders can draw upon these insecurities to win votes. Economic insecurity is largely a function of growing inequality and precarious employment, while cultural insecurity is due to concerns about the impacts of immigration and multiculturalism on a country’s character and national security. As we saw in 2016, the necessary conditions fell into place for populists to succeed in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

Banting argued that, while Canadians are generally supportive of immigration, their support is conditional. Touching on recent public polling data, he noted that some 8 out of 10 Canadians believe immigration has a positive economic impact, while about 6 out of 10 feel immigration levels are too high and about 5 out of 10 say that too many immigrants do not adopt Canadian values.1 Based on these survey results and Queen’s University data,2 Banting said that roughly one-third of Canadians support multiculturalism; one-third do not; and one-third support it conditionally, that is, their views can change based on economic and social factors. However, Banting does not believe that Canada has the requisite conditions for anti-immigrant politicians to succeed in the country. While a portion of Canada’s population is economically and culturally insecure, he argues that, due to what he refers to as the “populist’s paradox,” a populist would be hard-pressed to leverage these feelings to his or her political advantage because immigrants are a significant voting bloc, accounting for one-fifth of Canada’s population. Moreover, most immigrants live in the cities that have the greatest number of seats in elections. As such, unlike other countries, politicians in Canada often need to secure immigrant votes to win.

Defending Canada From Populism

Canada cannot continue to assume that it is exceptional and that multiculturalism will shield it from anti-immigrant tides. Rather, Banting said that Canada must find ways to better integrate immigrants into the economy and ensure that its economy and social safety net are strong to alleviate concerns that immigrants have a negative impact on the country’s prosperity.

John Ibbitson of The Globe and Mail also shared his thoughts on how Canada can shield itself from populism. In fact, he found Banting’s presentation to be so compelling that he wrote an article on it shortly after the Summit.3

To maintain public support for immigration in Canada, Ibbitson had some suggestions. First, Canada’s governments should look for market-oriented ways to support private sector innovation and economic growth so that the working and middle classes are cared for and wealth is distributed among them. Governments must also maintain the integrity of the immigration system so that foreign worker and refugee programs are not abused. Canadians should also be respectful of one another’s views, even if they disagree. Finally, Ibbitson argued that it is imperative for Canadians to explain and defend the roles of immigration and multiculturalism in contributing to Canada’s success as a nation.

In summary, the keys to protecting Canada from populism are:

  1. A growing and inclusive economy (led by the private sector) that provides Canadians and immigrants with good job opportunities.
  2. A strong economy is also essential to fund the social welfare programs that benefit Canadians and immigrants alike.
  3. A managed immigration system that regulates the flow of newcomers to Canada and ensures that immigration and asylum programs are not being abused.
  4. Open and respectful conversations that cover Canada’s key economic, social, and political issues. This includes respecting the views of fellow Canadians who express concerns about immigration.
  5. Canadians must champion immigration and multiculturalism’s value to Canada’s prosperity.

Read Our New Report

A summary of the remarks made by Professor Banting, Ibbitson, and many other Canadian Immigration Summit 2017 speakers can be found in our new report, which is available for free download: An Innovative Immigration System at 150 and Beyond.

Our next Summit is taking place on May 30–31, 2018 in Ottawa. Make sure to join us!

Releated Webinar

International Student Attraction in the Era of Brexit and Trump
October 3, 2017 at 02:00 PM EDT

1    The Environics Institute, Focus Canada—Fall 2016: Canadian Public Opinion About Immigration and Citizenship (Toronto: The Environics Institute, 2016; accessed August 17, 2017.)

2    Queen’s University, Multiculturalism Policy Index (accessed August 16, 2017).

3    John Ibbitson, “Immigration, Intolerance, and the ‘Populist Paradox,’” The Globe and Mail, June 18, 2017 (accessed August 16, 2017).

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