Douglas Todd: Parties mostly duck big migration issues in Election 2021

Todd’s take on the party platforms, based on my comparative table:

Canada’s long history of large-scale immigration is arguably the defining characteristic of the country, but only one of the minor political parties is putting the subject at the front of its election campaign.

The three largest parties are playing it low-key on immigration, refugees, guest workers and international students. That’s despite Ottawa normally (pre-COVID) welcoming more than one million migrants in all categories each year.

Canada takes in the most immigrants per capita of any country in the OECD, the club of rich nations. It has been in the top four Western countries both for the total number of migrants it accepts and for the proportion in its overall population.

But even though immigration policy powerfully affects Canada’s economy and culture, scholars say the Canadian media and politicians find the subject too sensitive, almost taboo, to debate. That’s unlike almost everywhere else.

Since the parties are largely refraining from highlighting their migration policies, I appreciate that Andrew Griffith, a former director general of Canada’s Immigration Department, has made a list of almost 100 migration-related positions the parties have, in a kind of muted way, placed on their platforms.

Here’s a look at subjects the parties are taking on — and avoiding:

1. Immigration levels — how much is enough?

The Peoples Party of Canada, which is running at seven per cent in the polls, is the only party challenging the Liberals’ rising immigration targets.

Even Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have been muted during the campaign about how they want to bring in more than 410,000 new permanent residents a year, a hike from the 250,000 when first elected in 2015.

There is no Canadian consensus on immigration levels, which is probably why the Conservatives, NDP, Greens and Bloc have not set any targets. An Angus Reid poll found two of five Canadians say more than 400,000 a year is too many. And Nanos found only 17 per cent believe Canada should accept more immigrants in 2021 than last year.

The PPC recommends lowering the target to 100,000 to 150,000 a year.

The main Liberal talking point on migration so far has been to falsely claim the Conservatives, when they were in power, lowered immigration levels. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are emphasizing giving more choice about immigration to each province.

2. Canadians feel compassion, and exasperation, on refugees

One of the few migration issues to attract wide media coverage has been asylum seekers, which Canada has long been a leader in welcoming.

The focus has been on the tens of thousands who have been walking across Canada’s land border from the U.S. in a manner some call “illegal” and others call “irregular.”

In the past few years, more than 50,000 people seeking asylum have poured across the border, 90 per cent at a remote unchecked entry way in Quebec called Roxham Road. The vast majority are not Americans, but people recently arrived in the U.S. from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

The disarray has caused irritation among two of three Canadians. They don’t think it’s fair people are being advised to take advantage of a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, which rules that asylum seekers must apply for refugee status in the first “safe” country in which they land. The loophole is that the agreement does not apply to those who cross at a non-official checkpoint.

This is one of the few migration issues the parties are openly disputing. The Conservatives and PPC want to close the loophole, which would restrict the flow. The NDP and Liberals are silent. And the Greens and Bloc want to ditch the Safe Third Country Agreement, which some say would encourage more to seek asylum.

In the meantime, the Liberals have promised to bring in 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan — and the Conservatives don’t disagree. The Conservatives also promise to welcome more Hong Kong people fleeing China’s totalitarian hand, as well as LGBQT people escaping persecution.

3. Multicultural signalling

While European politicians across the spectrum have questioned the concept of multiculturalism for more than a decade, that’s not the case in Canada, which still promotes the ideal of maintaining distinct ethnic cultures within one country.

The Citizenship Guide has been a point of contention. The Liberals have put together a “progressive’ version of the workbook of Canadian history, law and culture that all immigrants are tested on before they can become citizens. But the party decided not to publish it before this election.

It would seem the Liberal party doesn’t want to make its version of The Citizenship Guide a campaign bull’s-eye because reports suggest it will rankle a portion of Canadians by the way it emphasizes the country’s history of racism and discrimination.

Even though a Maru poll found only three per cent of Canadians name “stopping racism” as a leading election concern, the Liberals and NDP are signalling extensive commitments to racial equity. The Liberals alone have announced five different affirmative-action programs for Black people.

For their part, the Conservatives don’t have a platform on multiculturalism. But the party made a gesture to Ukrainian Canadians by promising to make it unnecessary for Ukrainians to have a visa to come to Canada.

Meanwhile, the PPC would repeal the official Multiculturalism Act. The NDP would institute a national plan to dismantle “far-right extremist organizations.” And the Bloc would appoint a commission to prevent ethnocultural “honour crimes.”

4. Mostly silence on international students and guest workers

In a typical year, Canada welcomes more than 600,000 international students, plus 400,000 temporary workers on various visas.

The international students alone are said to bring $23 billion a year into the economy. They contribute to the finances and classrooms of Canadian universities and colleges. International students also receive preferred status for immigration.

Despite the ramifications of Canada’s unusually large foreign-student population, not one party bothered to mention it. And that’s despite problems with the program, such as Statistics Canada data showing up to one in three come to Canada and then do not go to school.

Some parties do, however, have modest things to say about guest worker policy. The PPC would limit the numbers and ensure they’re “not competing with Canadians,” while the Liberals and Conservatives would create “a trusted employer system” to reduce administrative burdens on bosses.

5. No talk about how migration impacts wages, housing

This year B.C.’s former top civil servant, Don Wright, wrote a paper that maintained large-scale migration could be contributing to the 40-year stagnation of middle-class wages in Canada and could be exacerbating high housing prices.

While supporting solid immigration levels, Wright and many economists suggest Ottawa should improve its integration policies by boosting productivity and creating more infrastructure — especially housing.

There is, however, no mention of housing in the almost 100 positions taken on migration by Canada’s six political parties.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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