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What’s behind the dramatic shift in Canadian public opinion about immigration levels?

January 8, 2024
By By Leah Hamilton, Mount Royal University

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In June 2023, Canada’s population reached 40 million. For the first time in history, the population grew by more than a million (2.7 per cent) in a single year. Temporary and permanent migration accounted for 96 per cent of this population growth.

Over the past few decades, Canadians have been more positive than negative in their attitudes toward immigrants and immigration. In 2019, Canada was ranked the most accepting country for immigrants (in a survey of 145 countries) on Gallup’s Migrant Acceptance Index.

Over the last few years, Environics public opinion data also indicated Canadians felt very positively about immigrants and immigration levels.

Something changed in 2023.

A million newcomers in two years

A few months after reaching this population milestone, the federal government released its new Immigration Levels Plan to welcome 485,000 permanent residents in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025 and 2026.

This announcement came on the heels of an Environics public opinion survey revealing a significant increase in the number of Canadians who believe the country accepts too many immigrants. That marks a dramatic reversal from a year ago, when support for immigration levels stood at an all-time high.

Canadians are still more likely to disagree (51 per cent) than agree (44 per cent) that immigration levels are too high, but the gap between these views has shrunk over the past year, from 42 percentage points to just seven. That’s the biggest one-year change in opinion on this question since it was first asked by Environics in 1977.

Rising concerns about the number of arrivals are evident across Canada, but are most widely expressed in Ontario and British Columbia.

Environics has been surveying Canadians about immigration on a regular basis since 1977. The latest survey of more than 2,000 Canadians was conducted in September 2023 in partnership with the Century Initiative, a non-profit lobbying and charity group.

The survey was conducted to ensure representation by region, age, gender and educational attainment.

Apart from rising public concerns about immigration levels, there has been no corresponding change in how Canadians feel about immigrants themselves in terms of how they’re integrating and what they contribute to Canadian society.

The public is much more likely to say that newcomers make their own communities a better place than a worse one.

Housing crisis concerns

Importantly, the belief that immigration levels are too high is largely driven by perceptions that newcomers may be contributing to the housing crisis in terms of availability and affordability.

As researchers who study attitudes toward immigrants and immigration, we believe it is critical to pay attention to this shift.

There is a large body of research examining how perceived threat/competition predicts attitudes toward immigrants and immigration.

This research shows that negative attitudes toward immigrants can develop when situational factors — for example, housing shortages, inflationary pressures and a rise in anti-immigration ideologies — combine to create perceptions of group competition.

Perceived competition may be rooted in real or imagined national economic challenges, as well as beliefs about access to housing, employment and other resources.

In September 2023, when Environics conducted its latest survey, there was a lot of media coverage about the housing crisis, including the scapegoating of international students. It’s possible such coverage may have hardened some Canadians’ attitudes toward immigration levels.

In reality, Canada’s housing shortage was fuelled for decades by myriad factors, including municipal zoning laws, developers’ special interests and public policy on housing. As other scholars have argued, curbing migration is not a solution to this complex issue, nor is it moral.

Attitudes towards immigrants may change

Policymakers and community leaders should pay close attention to public attitudes toward immigration levels as they strive to build a diversified and robust immigration system and create welcoming communities for immigrants.

The latest research demonstrates the public still feels positively toward immigrants and their many contributions to communities and Canadian society. However, there seems to be growing concerns about Canada’s capacity to effectively resettle immigrants, in part due to concerns that newcomers may be contributing to the housing crisis.

If Canadians continue to blame immigrants for the housing crisis, their attitudes toward immigrants themselves — as opposed to immigration levels — may harden. How Canadians feel about immigration levels may also impact the type and level of supports immigrants can access as they resettle, whether they experience discrimination in the housing and labour markets and whether they’re warmly welcomed by their communities.

In order to ensure continued public support for immigration, it’s important for political leaders at all levels to address and counter perceptions of threat and competition over housing, jobs and other resources.

In addition to making critical public policy decisions to address Canada’s housing shortage, this will also require fair media coverage and representation of immigrants.

This article was co-authored by Keith Neuman, Senior Associate at Environics Institute for Survey Research.The Conversation

Leah Hamilton, Vice Dean, Research & Community Relations, & Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Faculty of Business & Communication Studies, Mount Royal University

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