Canada by global standards has had a successful history of immigration. The country has been fortunate in having a large land mass, oceans to provide for effective control over migrant flows, and a stable political ally along the undefended southern border. Canada’s political and cultural history carries significant baggage, but has evolved to a place in which migrants from across the globe are welcomed in large numbers to support economic and population growth, and can make new lives for themselves and their children as citizens.
Our research reveals that Canada’s ethnic-cultural diversity is now among the strongest sources of national pride and identity.
This success story has, however, never been fully embraced by all Canadians, as we know from our history of prejudice and racism directed toward each wave of newcomers, whether Irish, Chinese, East Indian or Muslim. Such elements of xenophobia persist in our society today, but it operates mostly in the margins rather than in the centre of public life.
Even in today’s polarized politics, immigration is not a contested battleground, and there is no major political party at any level that has adopted the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric common in other western nations.
Our research has documented how Canadian public opinion has, on balance, been supportive of immigration and refugees over the past decade, despite such disruptions as the global COVID-19 pandemic, contentious federal elections, and economic downturns.
In 2023, however, something has changed. Quickly rising immigration levels (a record number 1.1 million newcomers arrived in 2022) have collided with the country’s straining infrastructure, and Canadians have noticed. In our latest national survey conducted in September in partnership with Century Initiative, more than four in 10 Canadians now agree with the statement “there is too much immigration to Canada.” This remains a minority view but has jumped by 17 percentage points from 12 months ago, the most significant one year change in this measure in our four decades of research.
The most prominent reason for this change is growing concerns about the potential impact that newcomers are having on the availability and affordability of housing, now widely labelled as a crisis. But also at play is the public’s declining confidence in an economy with persistently high inflation, and more generally in the overall direction of the country.
Notably, this changing sentiment is not driven by opinions within a specific region or demographic group but evident across the country.
Concerns about high immigration levels are up everywhere, although more so in Ontario and B.C., as well as among first generation Canadians – segments of the population most apt to be affected by high housing costs.
This view is also shared by almost two-thirds of homeowners who are very worried about the affordability of their current homes.
What has not changed in 2023 is how Canadians feel about immigrants themselves. A large majority continue to say that immigration has a positive impact on the economy, and opinions about more contentious issues like refugee legitimacy and newcomer integration have held steady over the past year. At the local level, Canadians say immigrants make their own community a better place rather than a worse one, by a wide margin.
People are accepted into the country in one of several streams. When asked which should be given priority, Canadians are most likely to value skilled workers (whether those with specialized skills in high demand, or new permanent residents arriving with a good education), followed by refugees and reunited family members; the lowest priority is given to temporary workers and international students. But notably, only an infinitesimal proportion of Canadians (0.01%) consider all of these categories to be low priority.
Our latest research suggests that, perhaps for the first time in its history, Canada is now grappling with questions about its capacity for how many newcomers can be accommodated at a time when the economy, and housing in particular, is under stress. The public’s focus has shifted from its historic concerns about what type of immigrants to accept, to how many are arriving in our communities.
Public opinion is essential to maintaining Canada’s success as an immigrant nation, and today it is more fluid than at any time in the past few decades, with the future uncertain. Has the country hit a speedbump or are we at a crossroads? The issue of immigration capacity may settle down over time, aided by improving economic conditions and effective policy decisions. Alternatively, should our communities fall short in meeting the challenge of providing the essential infrastructure needed to support population growth, we may see Canadians turn against the prevailing positive story of our immigrant nation, and against newcomers themselves.
The next couple of years will be a pivotal time in our country’s history.
Keith Neuman is a Senior Associate with the non-profit Environics Institute for Survey Research, where he leads groundbreaking research on immigration and refugees, social values among Canada’s youth, and social norms. Since the 1980s, Neuman has worked in a senior capacity with leading organizations in the public, private and non-profit sectors in Toronto, Halifax and Ottawa.