Is the immigration policy debate controlled in Canada?

  • National Newswatch

The outrage among progressives earlier this month over a university professor's op-ed on the costs of multiculturalism and mass immigration seems to show how out of step they might be with ordinary Canadian voters. Numerous surveys show most Canadians do share the professor's concerns and fear that multiculturalism in Canada has gone well ahead of the assimilation process—see public opinion polls here, here, and here.Still, the response from the offending publisher, the Vancouver Sun, was swift. They removed the article from its site, issued a public apology, and printed multiple follow-up pieces rebutting the article and attacking its author; an attempt, it would seem, to close the media ranks around a more positive immigration and diversity narrative.The whole episode seemed to beg the question: can issues like immigration be openly discussed in Canada?There's “extraordinarily narrow realm of acceptable discourse on immigration” in Canada, observed Vancouver-based Washington Post- columnist J.J. McCullough a few years back. This certainly seems the case, at least if Canadians' knowledge of the extent of our mass immigration is any indicator. A poll conducted earlier this year found Canadians don't think immigration rates are nearly as high as they really are, with only 9 percent broadly guessing right they're between 150,000 and 300,000—Prime Minister Trudeau's since pushed rates above this range. Interestingly, the publisher of the data found that when most respondents later learned what the real rate was, they expressed a lack of support for the immigration status quo.University of British Columbia political scientist Antje Ellermann seems to say the narrowed discourse on immigration is certainly intentional. As she recently told a reporter, “Canada has a high degree of [immigration] policy-making behind closed doors” and for a long time immigration policy in Canada has been “dominated by the government and civil servants [who] rarely engage the public in meaningful ways.”So why wouldn't Ottawa meaningfully engage with the public on this issue? One reason has to be the close relationship between the big political parties and big business. Many corporations operate business models that depend on an ever-widening pool of consumers and relatively cheap labour. Just a couple months ago, Canada's biggest business associations together sent out an open letter to the major political parties flatly stating they did not want immigration to be widely discussed this upcoming election. It was a remarkably explicit demand that Canadians indeed be kept in the dark on immigration.An additional reason why there's perhaps such a tight grip on the immigration dialogue is the big institutional media. In a surprising moment of candor, The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson once stated that the large majority of journalists in Canada are left-leaning—members of the elite “Laurentian” class, as he phrased it. “[I]n the eyes of Laurentian reporters”, he said, “[g]enuinely Conservative governments do not belong in Canada… they do not reflect real Canadian values… [r]eal Canadians don't vote Conservative.” Although tempering immigration numbers was arguably more a progressive than a conservative position in the past, that's largely changed according to polls (although less so in Canada compared to the US), and Ibbitsons's observation would seem to explain a lot about how the impact of immigration is framed in Canada's major media outlets today.Big media's motivation behind narrowly framing immigration discourse, however, isn't just ideological; they too, of course, are a business. A few years back, after the Australian Treasury published two reports analyzing immigration's impact on the economy (finding them largely negative), Secretary John Stone cantankerously struck out at the media's commercial interest in their apparently skewed immigration reporting, noting:Immigration does not improve average Australians' living standards, and the long-standing argument for it has no substance. Our corporate chieftains—including importantly those controlling our media—find that conclusion unacceptable. More immigrants mean more demand for their products, whether widgets or newspapers. Thus, when the latter editorialise about the need for large (and preferably larger) immigration programs “in the national interest”, they should declare their own.When inconvenient facts and opinions on immigration aren't kept in the dark, they're put in a bad light. As former Director General of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Andrew Griffith has lamented, too often the media and political elite's framing of the issue entails well-meaning immigration-skeptics being immediately tarred and dismissed as xenophobic or worse.When B.C. environmentalist David Suzuki, for instance, pondered in an interview a few years back about the brain drain- and urban sprawl-effects of mass immigration he was attacked for being “xenophobic” by then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney as well as members of the media. Despite a follow-up survey at the time showing 80 percent of respondents supported his position, the attacks apparently worked; Suzuki hasn't raised the issue since.Similarly, when Simon Fraser University professor Andy Yan published a report linking immigration rates and the lack of housing affordability in Vancouver, former NDP MLA and city mayor Gregor Robertson attacked his findings as “racist”—most commentators thankfully called Robertson's claim shameful and said it was clearly based on protecting the city's real estate industry.Canadians are a deeply moral and trusting people, so when they're accused of xenophobia, even for simply wanting immigration reduced, they tend to yield. Although intimidation is hard to measure, Canadian-raised political scientist Erik Kaufmann cites research finding that when anonymized respondents who support reducing immigration had their identities made known to the researcher, support dropped by over 20 percentage points. In other words, intimidation works. Unfortunately, the political and media elite know this and are apparently willing to abuse it.Robert Stewart is the People's Party of Canada candidate in the riding of Spadina-Fort York