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Majority of Canadians against accepting more refugees, poll suggests

In a new poll commissioned by CBC News, a majority of respondents want Canada to accept fewer refugees and do more to encourage skilled labourers to immigrate to the country. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

This story is part of a series digging into the results of a CBC News-commissioned online opinion poll of 4,500 Canadians ahead of the October federal election.

A pre-election survey conducted for CBC News suggests Canadians are divided on immigration, with clear limits on the kind of migration they find acceptable. 

The government groups immigrants into three categories: economic, which are skilled workers and businesspeople, along with their partners and dependants; family reunification; and refugees or those admitted under humanitarian or compassionate grounds.

More than three-quarters (76 per cent) of respondents to a survey by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue agreed that Canada should do more to encourage skilled labourers to immigrate to the country, while 57 per cent said Canada should not be accepting more refugees.

The results come as no surprise to immigration experts and advocates, who point to a negative shift in tone on migration around the world, especially when it comes to refugees. They say that trend is stoked by media coverage in Canada of asylum seekers crossing the country’s border with the U.S. 

‘Drastic decline’ in welcoming of refugees

One organization in Manitoba says it is seeing that shift first-hand.

“There’s been a drastic decline in the acceptance and the welcoming, specifically of refugees,” said Dorota Blumczynska, executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba. Her family came as privately sponsored refugees to Canada nearly three decades ago.

dorota blumczynska

Dorota Blumczynska says she believes the discourse around refugees has become increasingly negative. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

She says that decline has made some newcomers anxious. “There is an internal struggle that I have really witnessed around whether or not people want to identify as refugees,” she added.

Alemayehu Beyene, whose family arrived in Canada about 2½ years ago, said he has found people in Canada to be welcoming and was surprised by the results of the poll. 

“Maybe they don’t understand why we came here,” said the 55-year-old who fled Ethiopia about 25 years ago and spent most of the years since in a refugee camp in Sudan. “Nobody wants to be a refugee. Somebody push[es] you to go into refuge.”

alemayehu beyene and daughter

Refugee Alemayehu Beyena, with his 11-month-old-daughter Arsima, says he has found people in Canada to be welcoming. He finds it hard to believe that a majority of respondents to the poll said they oppose Canada accepting more refugees. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

Christina Clark-Kazak, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in refugees and immigration, said the survey results reflect a long-standing tradition of Canadian immigration policy being centred around labour market needs. Under both Conservative and Liberal governments over the past decade, economic immigrants have made up between 53 and 63 per cent of immigrants each year, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data. 

“The problem with a lot of the immigration policy is we think about individuals in isolation, and we think about them only as economic actors,” she said.

Refugees, she added, are often seen as a “nice-to-have” by policy-makers but not a priority. 

The survey polled 4,500 adults online from among those who registered with the Maru Voice panel.

Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • Canada is doing a good job of keeping criminals and suspected criminals out of the country. 
  • Canada should be accepting more refugees. 
  • I’m worried that accepting too many immigrants will change Canada. 
  • Canada should be doing more to encourage skilled labour to immigrate to Canada.
  • Illegal immigration is becoming a serious problem in Canada. 

In another section, they were asked to select one of the following:

  • Too many immigrants are visible minorities. 
  • About right number of immigrants are visible minorities. 
  • Not enough immigrants are visible minorities. 
  • I don’t care about the ethnic makeup of immigrants.

Of the 3,112 people who answered the above: 

  • 64 per cent said illegal immigration is becoming a serious problem. 
  • 56 per cent said that accepting too many immigrants will change Canada.
  • 24 per cent said too many immigrants are visible minorities.

‘Thin veneer of tolerance’

“I think it is reflective that there is this sort of thin veneer of tolerance, but underneath there is a lot of racism that still exists in Canada,” said Clark-Kazak.

She said the Canadian context is also influenced by language coming out of the U.S., from a president she sees as anti-refugee, anti-immigration and anti-Islam. That discourse, she said, is seeping into both the political sphere and everyday life.

Other experts say Canada is not immune to this trend.

“Canada is not unique,” said Mireille Paquet, a political science professor at Concordia University and research chair on the politics of immigration. “Canada might have been more protected from some of the trends we see in Europe or in the United States, for example, but recent events show that Canadians also react the same way to this kind of growing politicization of immigration.”

With a federal election looming later this year, Paquet says the issue could become further polarized. 

mba pregnant asylum seeker 20190319

In the early-morning hours on February 26, 2017, eight migrants from Somalia cross into Canada illegally from the United States by walking down this train track into the town of Emerson, Man., where they planned to request asylum. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

“There is the chance that some parties will try to get some traction out of activating those fears and out of presenting themselves as being more able to respond to that, for example, by being tougher at the border,” said Paquet.

Experts say the results also reflect ongoing confusion around the legality of migrants crossing Canada’s border outside of ports of entry, a problem they say has been exacerbated by heightened media attention. 

Entering the country outside of a port of entry is illegal under Canada’s Customs Act, but asylum seekers who do so to claim refugee status are protected from prosecution while their cases are reviewed, under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The UN Convention on Refugees also notes that legitimate asylum seekers in this situation should not be prosecuted. 

Approximately 55,030 people claimed asylum in Canada last year, according to IRCC.

Immigration targets call for boost in numbers

The overall number of permanent residents that were admitted to Canada in 2018 was 321,045.

And the federal government is hoping to boost immigration numbers further. In targets laid out in last year’s annual report to Parliament on immigration, the government calls for 330,800 admissions this year, a number that is set to increase to 350,000 in 2021.

“Immigration has been, and continues to be, good for Canada,” said Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. “We are an aging society. We have a growing economy that needs a lot of new workers.”  

During a pre-election speech on immigration policy in May, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said his party would look at immigration levels annually, with an emphasis on economic immigration. The NDP’s election platform also states that its immigration policies and levels would address labour force needs, and that it would fix the “backlog” in the refugee system. The Green Party says it would also address labour shortages but would make substantial changes to the immigration system, including adding a category for “environmental refugees” and slowing down the deportation process.

Commissioned by CBC News, the Public Square Research and Maru/Blue online survey was conducted between May 31 and June 10, 2019, interviewing 4,500 eligible voters. Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have registered to participate in the Maru Voice panel. The data have been weighted to reflect the demographic composition of Canada, according to Statistics Canada. Because the sample is based on those who initially self-selected for participation in the Maru Voice panel rather than a probability sample, no estimates of sampling error can be calculated. However, a comparable probabilistic national sample of 3,000 voters would have a margin of error of +/- 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, while samples of 500 voters have a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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