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Immigration Needs Trust-Building Champions

Bruce MacLellan

It is well documented that in addition to Canada’s Indigenous population, our country is a nation of immigrants. Sadly, our new research shows dangerously low trust levels among Canadians in the immigration system and the handling of refugees.

Immigration is too important to lose public confidence. Leaders have a choice: stem the decline and become trust builders or set the house on fire and suffer the economic and social consequences. This rather blunt assessment is our conclusion based on the 2019 Proof CanTrust Index findings.

Without immigration, Canada’s population will start to shrink in twenty years. It is not a question of if, but how many immigrants. Recent governments of both Conservative and Liberal colours have set annual immigration levels at 250,000 to 300,000 people. Over 20 percent of people living in Canada and over 50 percent of people living in Toronto were born elsewhere.

Canada has also been generous in response to humanitarian crises, accepting thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s and large numbers of Syrian refugees in the past few years. Our welcoming of newcomers has been driven by both economic benefit and compassion.

This acceptance cannot be taken for granted. This week, on June 9th, was the 80th anniversary of the Canadian government’s 1939 decision to turn away the vessel MS St. Louis and the 900 Jewish passengers it carried. Approximately one-third of those passengers ended up dying in the Holocaust.

My grandparents came to Canada in the early 1900s for the same reason as immigrants arrive today – the opportunity for freedom, safety and prosperity. As is pointed out by the Century Initiative think tank, Canada accepted 400,000 immigrants in 1913, which would have been over five percent of the population that year.

Despite the historic facts, our research shows that trust in Canada’s immigration system is surprisingly weak. Only 2 in 5 Canadians trust our system. For handling immigration, only 41 percent of Canadians trust the system to do what is right for Canadian society. For handling refugees, only 3 percent trust the system to do what is right for Canada. In terms of balancing the plight of refugees with the needs of the country, barely a third of Canadians express trust.

Digging deeper, the national averages are even more troubling when we look at responses based upon political party preferences. Among Canadians who identify as supporters of the Conservative Party, trust in the immigration system falls to 23 percent. Trust in the refugee system is only 20 percent.

By contrast, those Canadians who identify as Liberal supporters exceed the national average for trust in the system. The immigration system is trusted by 68 percent of Liberals to do what is right for Canadian society and the refugee system is at 60 percent.

When asked if Canada’s refugee system balances the plight of refugees with the needs of the country, it is trusted by 60 percent of Liberals but only 20 percent of Conservatives. In all of these questions, NDP supporters exceed the national average but fall lower than the trust of Liberals.

Another worrisome gap in trust in the immigration system among Canadians is between small communities and large urban areas. Larger communities that absorb the vast majority of immigrants trust the system by as much as 11 points higher than trust levels in communities of 50,000 people or less.

The highest levels of trust we found were with newcomers themselves. Among people who have been in Canada for fewer than 15 years, they trust the system by significantly higher levels than people born in Canada. In other words, it is immigrants who trust the greatest in the importance of immigration to benefit Canada.

Canada and our leaders should aspire toward a national consensus on our system for managing immigration and refugees. Yes, certain aspects need to be fixed, such as migrant crossings in recent years at Roxham Road. Politicians should acknowledge and communicate the important economic contribution of immigrants. Without newcomers, our ageing workforce will soon present a national crisis across public and private sector services.

Let’s have a rational debate about how refugees are processed or what levels of immigration are appropriate. Let’s not fuel fear and cynicism that the system is failing. Let’s participate in international discussions about refugees and ways to solve crises that cause people to flee other countries. Let’s not fuel fear by suggesting a global agreement for safe, orderly and regular migration is a loss of sovereignty. Immigration should be recognized as a positive contributor to economic prosperity, not as a threat to society.

Ironically, something that Canadians trust even less than the immigration system is our Parliament, at only 39 percent. The occupants of this institution should do some hard thinking about the tone and direction of debate. Do they want to be trust builders or continue to set the house on fire?