The lessons Canada should learn from Britain's anti-immigrant politics -

The lessons Canada should learn from Britain’s anti-immigrant politics

Opinion: Canada is seen as a global beacon on immigration. But Justin Trudeau would be wise to look for the warning signs that Britain ignored before Brexit


Nigel Farage, then the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), poses for photographers holding a British passport at the launch of the party’s open-top bus that will be touring the UK for the campaign to leave the European Union, ahead of the referendum, in London on May 20, 2016. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

Julia Rampen is a news editor for The New Statesman and a Canadian citizen based in London. She writes about politics, economics and social issues.

On Jan. 29, 2017, the newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump got to work and announced a ban on travel and migration from a number of Muslim-majority countries—and in the world’s airports, chaos ensued. Passengers who boarded planes confident of their U.S. itinerary found themselves blocked on landing. Protesters and human-rights lawyers gathered outside airports. Security officials, surprised as everyone else, floundered.

Justin Trudeau, though, was quick to respond. “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith,” he tweeted. “Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” To date, the tweet has been shared nearly 418,000 times.

It’s the kind of message that has helped Canada become a byword in the international community for a sensible, progressive attitude to immigration. In Britain, too—where 3.7 million European Union citizens spent 2017 waiting to hear whether they could continue to live in the country they had made their home, and where, after a rancorous Brexit vote that many saw as hinging on the issue of immigration, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”—the message was received.

Yet not so long ago, Britain also celebrated diversity, and a U.S. president depicted his Kenyan father and Indonesian childhood as a modern version of the American Dream. Trudeau might declare, as he did in June, that “our differences make us strong,” but there are signs that not everyone agrees—signs that we missed in Britain, until the morning of Jun. 24, 2016, when the cost of missing them became impossible to ignore.

Multiculturalism, Trudeau said in that June statement, “is at the heart of Canada’s heritage and identity.” This may be true, but when it comes to views on immigration, Canada is almost indistinguishable from a European country. A 2017 study by University of Toronto political scientist Michael Donnelly found that seven in ten Canadians would only accept “a few” or “some” poor immigrants, a view most similar to public opinion in France. Most people were willing to be generous to refugees, but only to the extent that British people were. While Canadians were generally positive about the impact of immigrants on the economy—and here, it’s worth noting Canada did not have as bad a financial crisis as many European countries—one in five would support stopping all immigration to the country.

So far, it has been possible for Canada’s political establishment to ignore this awkward squad on immigration. But this may say more about their opponents’ organizational skills than Canadian exceptionalism. “Both countries have large blocs of people who are genuinely upset about immigration alongside many who are quite comfortable with it,” Donnelly said in an interview with Maclean’s, when asked about the U.K. and Canada. “Perhaps the anti-immigrant group is a bit larger in the U.K. than in Canada, but I’d say the major difference is the lack of a British National Party, or the UK Independence Party, to attract and, to an extent, legitimize the fringe right, which is present in both countries.”

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The British National Party—a far-right group that, at its high point in the mid-2000s, managed to elect some local councillors—is unlikely to keep Canadian liberals up at night. UKIP, however, is a different story. Under the leadership of the beer-swilling, hat-doffing Nigel Farage, the party charmed its way into TV studios and foxtrotted a fine line between respectable, if anti-European Union, political rhetoric, and far-right xenophobic dog whistles. By 2015, Farage had still not managed to get elected to the Westminster Parliament, but two Conservative MPs had defected to UKIP, immigration was a dirty word, and a rattled David Cameron, then the Conservative prime minister, promised a referendum on EU membership.

Syrian refugee families arrive at their new homes on the Isle of Bute on December 4, 2015 in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, Scotland. The Isle of Bute is welcoming 15 Syrian families as part of the government’s plan to give refuge to 20,000 refugees in the UK by 2020. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Defenders of Britain’s anti-immigration turn will point out that there is one stark difference to Canada: the free movement rules which allowed up to 190,000 EU citizens a year to come to the U.K. and indeed, admiration for Canada’s immigration system is shared by some British Eurosceptics, who say they are in favour of control rather than ending immigration per se. Still, immigration was an issue that united voters across party lines, and against their own party leadership. The Lincolnshire town of Boston—christened Britain’s “most Brexit town” because of the high Eurosceptic vote—experienced a 460-per-cent rise in immigration between 2004 and 2014.

British liberals who reject anti-immigration sentiment, yet accept that after Brexit it has to be taken seriously, often argue that this is because immigration has become a proxy for economic concerns. It is true that in the years between the financial crisis and Brexit, Britain’s Conservative-led government inflicted a series of cuts on public services. Between 2007 and 2015, the U.K. was the only advanced country to see wages shrink while the overall economy grew. For older residents of post-industrial provincial towns, far from the cosmopolitan splendours of London, it would not take a great leap of imagination to believe that there were too many people in the country willing to work for too little. Although at first glance Canada is not plagued with these problems, liberals might want to take note of the fact that in 2014, the country was ranked third worst for regional economic disparity among countries in the OECD. 

Yet there is another bulwark against anti-immigration sentiment in Canada, and this one is far easier to overcome. While the majority of British MPs were in favour of remaining in the EU, the two biggest-selling newspapers in the U.K., The Sun and The Daily Mail, backed Leave. This was no surprise, not least given the same papers had already successfully been blurring the lines between immigrants, refugees and criminals for years. In the spring of 2015, after roughly 1,600 people had died trying to cross the Mediterranean in at the beginning of what would later be called “Europe’s refugee crisis,” Sun columnist Katie Hopkins wrote a piece entitled “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants.” The Daily Mail published a front page declaring: “MIGRANTS: HOW MANY MORE CAN WE TAKE?”

Hopkins, who also compared refugees to cockroaches, ultimately proved too much for mainstream British audiences after she called for a “final solution” in the wake of a domestic terror attack. But she quickly found a new job—with the Canadian-based Rebel Media, where she hosts her own website, Hopkins World. (Her discussion of “shithole countries” has already prompted one Canadian reader to lament the “Clown Prince” of the liberals, “Justin Mohammed Trudeau.”)

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According to Ryan Scrivens, an academic at Concordia University who has spent six years studying far-right extremism, some Canadians are receptive to a “traditional” racist skinhead message. More common, though, is the trend of being drawn to the alt-right, which inhabits the same, ambiguous area as UKIP and columnists like Hopkins. “The alt-right is watered-down hate,” said Scrivens. “It’s the more mainstream, palatable, and acceptable form of hatred, which seems to resonate with more people.”

While Scrivens echoes Donnelly’s view that the far right struggles to co-operate in Canada, he does identify one issue they can unite behind: immigration. Here, the concerns resemble those in Europe, with the focus on refugees from Muslim countries. “With that comes a (mis)perception that, with an increase in Muslim immigrants, Sharia law will be imposed on Canadians and terrorists will sneak into the country and cause harm.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Georgina Zires, centre, 16 month-old Madeleine Jamkossian, second right, and her father Kevork Jamkossian, refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, as they arrive at Pearson International airport, in Toronto, on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

One year on from his tweet, Trudeau does not face an obvious ideological opponent on immigration, at least so long as Andrew Scheer, focussed on a message of inclusion, leads the Conservatives; Kellie Leitch, who brought anti-immigration ideas to the Tories’ leadership campaign, now faces a nomination challenge for her seat from within her own party in 2019. But the lesson from Europe and the U.S. is that anti-immigration movements do not come from within the establishment. Sites like Rebel Media have seized on the implications of Trudeau’s “Welcome to Canada” message, calling the movement of people from U.S. to Canada since Trump took power a “border invasion.” Leitch and movements like Canada First continue to depict welcoming refugees and Canadian values as incompatible, and despite her loss, a poll during the Conservative leadership campaign found that a majority of Canadians supported some form of values test.

With his personal popularity ratings slipping, and the influence of online media growing, Trudeau needs to beware an insurrection from below. Otherwise, he may be surprised about how quickly a country’s reputation can change.



The lessons Canada should learn from Britain’s anti-immigrant politics

  1. Because we have a birthrate insufficient to sustain us, immigration is vital for Canad’s prosperity and advancement. We have averaged about 250,000 per year including about 12,000 refugees. I would be quite happy if the 240,000 non refugee immigrants was 400,000 per year as long as our merit based system was used to ensure those entering could be productive and add value. However, I would be dead against the nonsense they have in the U.S. of lotteries, chain immigration or harbouring illegal
    immigrants.or anything that would add to our welfare rolls. Our country is currently living beyond its means and amassing debt and should not add to that by lowering our immigration standards. Our top 1% salary earners already pay 10% of all taxes collected and the top 10% pay 54%.-that’s more than fair.

    • Devil’s Advocate mode ON:

      Are you sure we need more people? There is AI, automation, and robots. All immigration may mean now is further unsustainability…taking a low carbon emitter from the rest of the world, and turning them into a high carbon emitter here. Expanding our cities further over agricultural land.

      All we may need is too look for immigrants with special skills.

      • Exactly. There is a problem with baby boomers retiring. But the idea that populations must expand constantly is being tested as the oceans run out of fish, animal populations looking at mass extinctions and unsustainable farming techniques being practiced do not bode well for the future of that economic growth theory. That is not even mentioning how we will reach our carbon emission targets if we grow our population by huge amounts. It is too easy to say that more people will solve the problems in our country but this is increasingly looking doubtful. More emphasis needs to be put on fixing the problems that currently exist within our population before we create more problems.

  2. Missing from the article is the real reason Britain experienced immigration backlash, leading to Brexit.
    Back when the east European countries came knocking on the west’s doors demanding entry to the EU, the existing former (western) EU countries decided to offer an olive branch as follows: Sure, the west’s companies would like the cheaper labor force and eventual market expansion for their products, so they offered the east just that. No more customs duties and free movement of PRODUCTS. People could travel to the west (visa free) but not work there. The idea being that, in a few years time, the east’s economies will expand (due to the west’s investments) and it’s citizens will find gainful employment within their own borders, slowly bringing the living standards to par with the west, discouraging their intentions to move to the west. So far so good. The other building block of the larger EU, the free movement of people, was left to all the western European nations to decide at their national level. ALL western European countries placed a moratorium of 3-10 years on allowing eastern citizens the right to work in their territory, except for one. The UK wanted the eastern Europeans to work and reside in the UK, immediately! Of course, the idea was to take the best and brightest from the east… it backfired badly, because the “best and brightest” came, but not alone… since the rest of western Europe didn’t offer this possibility to the lowest of low, they all went to the UK. Together with the right to work and pay taxes, comes the entitlement to the social programs. So, if a father found (even menial) employment in the UK, he could bring his whole extended family over, demanding social benefits, medical care, schooling etc. It didn’t take long for the UK to realize their mistake, but time could not be turned back… the British social safety net was tested to the braking limit, so their solution is… Brexit! The Brits might complain about refugees, but in reality, it’s the Polish nurses, Romanian construction workers and Czech tradesman that “took their job”. The UK populists are well aware of this, but since it was of their own making, they can’t complain about it and choose to blame the EU’s relaxed refugee policies, instead.
    Since then, the rest of western Europe has opened it’s borders to eastern workers, but they don’t have nearly the problems the UK faced. They might have learned something from the UK’s experience, and tweaked their national laws accordingly. Today, Germany (which had a 10 year moratorium) employs most of the eastern Europeans and yet, their unemployment numbers are way down… not to mention the almost 1 mil. refugees that settled in Germany over the last 2-3 years. Just goes to show that, with the proper policies in place, immigration doesn’t have to lead to the disaster it was for Britain.
    Canada, can’t compare it’s situation with that of the UK. First of all, there is more than enough room in Canada (might be cold, but better than some war torn country). Secondly, Canada has had a complex immigration law for a very long time. Being a country formed by immigrants, they had no choice but to tweak their immigration laws to keep pace with world events. Birthrates being what they are, immigration is a great way to expand and prosper. If only we could convince our professional associations to speed up the recognition of international credentials… The immigration points system deciding who has the education / experience to immigrate to Canada, doesn’t help if international credentials are not being accepted at face value by the professional associations. In other words, we are not reaping the full benefits of immigration, by having doctors and engineers driving cabs… or performing any other work, below their level of education (which allowed them to immigrate, in the first place). Please spare me the nonsense of how our education system is sooooooo superior to all others, that foreign credentials are worthless.

  3. We have laws against hate crimes and the incitement of hate crimes. I urge all governments to watch for these things and use these laws as often as necessary. We must not allow ignorant, right-wing extremists like Katie Hopkins to influence the thinking and behaviour of our populace. The very reason people want to emigrate to Canada is because of the generally kind and tolerant and diverse nation we are: let’s not let an ignorant bigot from somewhere else spoil that.