Does Canada have too many immigrants? -

Does Canada have too many immigrants?

From Europe to Asia, populist forces are surging as a fear of foreigners pushes nations to a tipping point. More newcomers leads to more support for right-wing populism.

Congregation members hold prayer in the parking lot, on Sunday, November 15, 2015, after the only mosque in Peterborough, Ont., was deliberately set alight Saturday night. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Congregation members hold prayer in the parking lot, on Sunday, November 15, 2015, after the only mosque in Peterborough, Ont., was deliberately set alight Saturday night. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Populism, at face value, seems almost healthy. Or at least to me it does. I was raised in Alberta, a populist heartland. It was accepted as a fact that the government chronically ignores “the people.” Men like Ralph Klein, who drank in a rundown pub and boasted about his lack of education did well there. Ralph, as he was universally known, painted himself as an outsider, the only one looking out for the roughnecks and the farmhands. And we ate it up.

But after I moved overseas, it didn’t take me long to realize populism isn’t just backslapping good ol’ boys. I found that from Indonesia to England, “rule by the people” almost always ends up undermining democracy.

At the heart of every populist movement is the idea that the establishment has to go. There is no grand theory of economics or social policy. There is the idea that the people are being hurt by the powers that be—and that makes the establishment illegitimate. Therefore, the only legitimate candidate is the populist. He or she is on the same side as the people, and electing him or her means the people will be back in charge. As Trump himself explained during his inaugural address: “Jan. 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

MORE: Canada’s last lines of defence against populism

Because the current way of doing politics is illegitimate, populists scorn it by acting out. Their supporters love the “honesty” of their transgressions, sexual escapades and illicit opinions. This erodes the political system. Consider the United States. In the next election cycle, will voters see sexual assault or tax evasion as a disqualifier?

The populist is the avatar of the people, the embodiment of their will. If somehow they lose the election, then the people’s will was subverted; the election was corrupt, or there was a conspiracy to stop them. Spreading doubt about the electoral system further erodes democracy and the public’s trust in institutions.

Even after taking power, a populist still needs an opponent. This means attacking the bureaucrats, policies and systems that were in place when he arrived. The battle against the establishment is constant, and success is a zero-sum game, measured by how much the other guys lose. In the end, the greatest casualties are actually the institutions that keep a democracy relatively stable.

There is one other foil that populists almost always target: immigrants, minorities and foreigners. In France, the populists blame Muslims (8 per cent of the population). In Indonesia, it’s the Chinese (1 per cent). In the United Kingdom, it’s the Jews (0.5 per cent). It doesn’t matter how small or powerless these groups are, they are held responsible for any setback or failure suffered by a populist government or movement.

From our podcast: What are Canada’s attitudes toward immigrants, really?

Right now, it feels like populism is surging globally. In the U.K., we have seen the rise of the anti-immigrant UKIP party and the success in the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. Across the channel, the polls are predicting the anti-Muslim, anti-European Union party of Geert Wilders may form the largest party in the Netherlands’ parliament. Similarly, in France, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen is being boosted by her ability to blend centrist policies with strong anti-immigration messages.

In Hungary, the anti-immigrant Prime Minister Viktor Orban gave a speech this week calling for more “ethnic homogeneity.” Not surprisingly, he also wants closer ties to Russia. There, Vladimir Putin is the most influential populist in the world. At home, he has pushed an agenda of nationalism, while energetically subverting elections. Abroad, Russia has actively supported populist movements everywhere: money to Le Pen in France, leaked emails for Trump and clandestine support for the Brexit campaign in the U.K.

Another new friend of Russia is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has become increasingly populist while greatly expanding his powers. Further south, in Africa, the past decade has seen a marked increase in populist movements in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. In Asia, the Philippines elected an anti-intellectual strongman who boasts about breaking the law. And in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power railing against a corrupt and ineffectual status quo and making abusive comments against the Muslim minority.

A United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) supporter wears a UKIP badge on a t-shirt featuring Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, at the party's annual conference in Bournemouth, Britain. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

A United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) supporter wears a UKIP badge on a t-shirt featuring Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, at the party’s annual conference in Bournemouth, Britain. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Which brings us to Canada. Will we see a similar rise in populism here? When I sat down to write this column, my instinctive answer was “no.” I agreed with many of the arguments made by my colleague John Geddes, who sees systemic and political barriers to Canadian populism. My thinking was that the apparent growth in global populism is because we are focused on Trump and starting to pay attention. But where I could find data, it didn’t support my conclusion. One study from Harvard, for example, found that support for populist parties on both the left and the right has grown undeniably and steadily since the 1960s, doubling its support since then.

But it was another study completed late last year by a group of academics from the U.S., Europe and Japan that left me especially troubled. They looked at a dozen European countries to see if there was a correlation between the relative size of the immigrant population and the support for right-wing populist movements. The researchers found that there was a direct connection, and that support grew at an increasing rate as the size of the immigrant population grew. And what is more, their data suggested there was a “tipping point” in western societies: when immigrants comprised 22 per cent of the population, support for anti-immigrant parties approached a political majority. If a country takes in too many immigrants, a populist backlash may be unavoidable.

In Canada, our foreign-born population is already at 20 per cent and growing. This is far higher than in the United States and (except for Luxembourg and Switzerland, where there are large numbers of itinerant professional residents like bankers) it is far higher than in any other European nation. And it’s getting bigger. Statistics Canada just released a report that projected Canada’s immigrant population will increase to between 26 per cent and 30 per cent within two decades. This puts Canada well beyond the theoretical 22 per cent threshold in the European study.

MORE: Q&A with Preston Manning on Canadian populism in the Trump era

It makes sense that countries become unstable with too many foreigners. I have first-hand experience in places like Pakistan and Timor Leste, where sudden massive influxes of refugees can pull a country apart at the seams. But is it possible that even when immigrants arrive gradually and they are integrated successfully, it can still destabilize a country? Perhaps a populist backlash is inevitable in Western democracies when the immigrant population grows to a certain size.

This is not because the newcomers bring crime or undermine our democratic institutions (they do neither), but because the native citizens, whether they are Canadians or Austrians or Americans, instinctively feel threatened by newcomers. Perhaps the experiences add up—new faces on TV, new clothes in the street, new music on the radio—until the average person reaches a tipping point and pushes back. After all, a fear of strangers is wired into our brains, an instinct that kept us alive in our tribal past.

If this is true, it upends a lot of assumptions that this country is built on regarding multiculturalism, pluralism and immigration. Canada may be facing larger global forces, tectonic shifts which are are not felt until it’s too late and a populist earthquake shatters our carefully built house of peace, order and good government.

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Does Canada have too many immigrants?

  1. Canada was once known for its populist governments, such as the odd alliance of “Progressive-Conservative”, typified by John Diefenbaker, a defense lawyer and man of the people. This is no bad thing. But populism in its more negative form can arise from the left as easily from the right. In fact, I believe “left” and “right” are outdated terms.

  2. Geez, any change at all and the media panics about Armageddon. AND WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE.

  3. How many times do we have to say this? The rise of today’s populism is just as much about the general incompetency and malfeasance of our so-called elites within government as it is any other subject. The only response we ever hear, to our complaint that government is too big and wasteful and corrupt and incompetent, is “Well, let’s create a new department to fix those problems, then!”
    It’s like being told that the best cure for heart disease is liver cancer. We’re finally just a lot more energized. Don’t make us get nasty.

    • Oh belay the pitchfork crap. We live in a democracy.

      And Harp had 10 years.

  4. Canada is the second largest country in the world, with only 35 million citizens.
    It’s just too crowded now. Just kidding. As long as we have merit-based immigration
    (the USA praises our immigration policy), and numbers are controlled, immigration
    is good for Canada. However, we need to spread out, and perhaps with global warming
    the northern regions will be more attractive for increased settlement.

  5. Canada needs at least a million immigrants a year, more if possible.

    It’s either that or no pensions, guys.

    • Don’t disagree as long as they come under a merit based system, with solid documentation from their home country,can productively contribute to our economy and not become a welfare recipient.

      • That’s what our immigration system has always done.

  6. No!

    But we do have too many career politicians… should be a limit on how long one can serve as a politician.

    • There is…’s called an election.

  7. Perhaps ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’ is a political statement. It seems like a simple ruse: create an identifiable other, concoct some stereotypical notions, build up an adversarial rhetoric and then use the threat of ‘them’ to short circuit common decency. Surprisingly, this always works better when religion is involved and seems to find a resonance even with agnostics and atheists. At one time Bytown was the most violent city in Canada mainly based on the division of Irish and French egged on by competing special interests and largely characterized as a competition for jobs – there’s another all too common theme: ‘They’re taking our jobs’, Eventually, as a blatant PR job, the name was changed to Ottawa. But, when one looks closer, the arbitrariness of the whole thing demonstrates a level of stupidity: many of the ‘French’ were descendants of Irish-French marriages as were many of the ‘Irish’ and of course with a mix of Scots, English, German and Aboriginal although no one seemed to want to be confused by facts; the conflict was to the advantage of commercial interests who used the conflict to keep labor in line and provided politicians with an issue to exploit in the ongoing Canada East/Canada West power struggle. It should be obvious that there is always a cohort of politicians that gravitate to simple inflammatory issues where the concise answer is to put down a designated minority. We see that today in Vancouver where rich Chinese, more exactly anyone with an oriental sounding name since it simplifies the thought process, are the villain in real estate issues while rich Americans and Australians and even Ontarians go unmarked. It’s always just that simple.

  8. “At the heart of every populist movement is the idea that the establishment has to go.” In these cases, it is almost always because the establishment is not meeting the legitimate needs of the majority of its constituents. Currently, as a good example, the U.S. is a terrific place to live if you are rich and awful if you are poor. And the U.S. systems of education, health care, etc. foster that divide.

    • Anyplace is terrific if you’re rich, and lousy if you’re poor.

    • If Alberta had a populist movement and “at the heart of every populist movement is the idea that the establishment has to go” then how did the provincial Conservative party maintain power for over 4 decades? The only times that Albertans rose up against the establishment was when the premiers were incompetent….Alison Redford, Ed Stelmach. As for your statement about the US being an awful place to live if one is poor, you are absolutely correct Jerome. Your belief that it is going to change under Trump is a bit misguided however. How exactly is Paul Ryan going to pay for a 20 billion dollar Mexican wall and lower corporate taxes (down from 35 to 20 percent) without completely bankrupting the affordable healthcare act and disseminating the public school system. Ryan has never pretended he is interested in anything other than giving a tax break to the richest Americans. Canada is different. The poor have a safety net. Health care is provided even if one has a pre-existing condition. We have disability programs for those who are severely handicapped. We have affordable education and student loans. Now, the poor with children get a pretty decent amount of cash per kid each month. Trump may have made promises in his campaign but the head of the Repulican Party has his own agenda and that agenda isn’t to make life better for the poor.

  9. From a Canadian
    l will no longer stand quietly by and let Radical Islam put down roots in my Canada…
    l will resist their attempt to take away my free speech
    l look at Greece
    l look at Italy
    l look at Germany
    l look at France
    l look at England
    l think to myself why would l want this outdated farce in my Canada….
    why would l want Sharia Law in my Canada…
    why would l want no go zones in my Canada…
    why on earth would someone even consider this in this day and age
    Why should Canadian women cower in fear that Sharia Law might gain roots in Canada
    lm guessing that politicians have gotten so desperate for votes their now willing to sell out ordinary Canadians and their values for a few votes no mater where or how they get them
    lm all for responsible immigration….
    This push to fill my Canada with Radical muslims is not responsible immigration !!
    when they pull up to the Canadian Border in a taxi only to be directed by US Customs where to go and cross illegally into Canada l can only shake my head in disbelief
    Why should we take these folks in when they break the law to get into Canada trying to jump the queue that other folks have waited years to get in….
    L think a wise idea would to be to slow down on the Islamic immigration into Canada until we see how Greece,Italy,France and England work out.
    Gotta be honest here…dosnt seem to be working out to well over there folks…am hoping Canadians are smarter than l give them credit for at this point
    This is your future folks…choose wisely
    l will no longer stand by quietly on the sidelines and see my Canada given away for a few simple votes
    l will engage my family
    l will engage my friends
    l will engage my coworkers
    l will ask them to also engage thier own familys…thier own friends and thier coworkers as well
    l will not go quietly into that dark muslim night….

    A Canadian

    • Take the KKK recruitment ad elsewhere.

    • Did some research Comox Courtney and the people who are extreme anti-Muslim tend to be Evangelical. It appears to be some sort of interfaith disharmony. Funny, given that both faiths have quite a bit in common. Neither respects women’s rights to control their own bodies and neither respects gay and lesbian rights. It is really a situation of pot and kettle. Perhaps if we in Canada were to institute what Germany does. Churches are not considered non-profit there. Individuals who attend church pay taxes for the upkeep of their church in its entirety. No more subsidizing people’s religious beliefs especially when they are based on hatred and bigotry.


        By the way, Canada has had no-go zones but it had nothing to do with Muslims. They were related to conflicts between the original Canadians (aboriginals) and immigrants like you….whites. Chances are, it will happen again in the future. It is not as though the relationship has been a collegial one. In fact, my guess is if the First Nations were in charge, they wouldn’t let any more Caucasian immigrants into the country.

      • That wouldn’t surprise me…evangelicals and the Taliban/Isis are the same thing…..religiously insane extremists

        It would be nice if we could ship them all to a Pacific island and let them fight it out among themselves. Maybe then the rest of u could get on with things.

  10. So there is a problem with using statistical correlation in this fashion. To be correlated you need to have identically distributed random variables – which you don’t. Canada is not identical to any of the other “variables”. Our history and culture, in other words the stories we tell about ourselves are quite different. Of course, fear of the other is well embedded in the human psyche, but there is more to it than that surely? We have had an official story about multiculturalism for a long time now. Sure, people criticize it, but I like the concept and it seems to me I am not entirely alone in that. We have just had an election where one party raised in a small way fear of the other and they got their heads handed to them. Kellie Leitch is hardly sweeping the nation with her Canadian values play. Furthermore, she is hardly Wilders or Le Pen, is she? I would say quite a few things have to start going badly wrong in Canada for the kind of anti-immigrant populism we see in Europe to gain serious traction here.