Canadians aren’t as accepting as we think — and we can’t ignore it, writes Angus Reid
There’s a gap between polling data and the way many Canadians traditionally see themselves
October 10, 2016 – Back in December, TV viewers around the world were treated to the scene of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new, youthful prime minister, greeting Syrian refugees as they disembarked from government planes in Toronto.
These images no doubt reinforced the impression that many Canadians have of their country: That it’s a welcoming land of enormous generosity that celebrates the diverse cultures and languages arriving at her door — unlike our neighbour to the south that produced the venomous Donald Trump and seeks to integrate newcomers into a homogenous “American” society.
But the job of a pollster often involves confronting social myths with inconvenient data. The fact is, though this high-minded view of Canada may be comforting to many, it’s not entirely accurate.
A new study the Angus Reid Institute conducted in partnership with CBC reveals a slightly different portrait of Canadians than that of our national myth.
On immigration, the vast majority of Canadians prefer a policy that will enhance our economic prosperity over one that emphasizes the needs of people in crisis around the world.
On multiculturalism, by a factor of almost two-to-one, Canadians say they would prefer that minorities “do more to fit in” with mainstream Canada, rather than encourage cultural diversity in which groups keep their own customs and language. (I asked an almost identical question 25 years ago, and fewer Canadians actually support multiculturalism as a concept today.)
Asked the same question today, Americans are actually more likely than Canadians to say minority groups in their country should keep their culture and language (in the U.S., it’s closer to a 50/50 split).
So much for Canadian exceptionalism on the cultural diversity front.
Before considering the implications of these findings, some context is in order. First, we need to reflect on how much perceptions and attitudes have changed throughout the decades.
Though Canadians offer less-than-enthusiastic responses on multiculturalism in the abstract, they’ve actually become more inclined to embrace specific instances of diversity over the years.
One example in particular stands out. In the early 1990s, I conducted several polls on whether Canadians agreed with a policy in some legion halls that banned Sikhs wearing turbans.
At the time, Canadians were divided on the issue. Today, our defence minister is a Sikh veteran who wears a turban.
Likewise, around the same time, we polled Canadians on a campaign originating in Western Canada to change immigration policy to favour people from “white” countries. Today, the question of giving immigration preference to “whites” is mercifully far behind us.
There’s little evidence of a crisis today in the treatment of newcomers to Canada. Unlike the situation in France, where large swaths of the immigrant community feel they aren’t treated as French citizens, we find that the vast majority of newcomers to Canada feel that they are treated as “Canadians.”
In fact, they’re more likely to say they’re optimistic about their children’s futures and the future of the country than Canadians who were born here.
Despite the progress we’ve made, immigration and multiculturalism are likely to become a matter of even greater debate in the coming years. Already, there are signs of cracks in the experience of Canadians in their everyday lives.
Asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with how well new immigrants are integrating in their communities, about one-third of Canadians say they are dissatisfied.
Though still a minority perception, that adds up to a lot of resentment among millions of Canadians that can’t be ignored.
Others are concerned about the threat to “Canadian values” — in the justice system, family life, education and security.
Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch received plenty of criticism in the media for suggesting Canada needs to test would-be immigrants on “Canadian values.” But I suspect her message resonated with many Canadians who fear their way of life is being threatened and feel left out of decision-making in Canada.
The demographic reality is that Canada will continue to rely on large numbers of newcomers in the coming decades to keep our economy afloat and serve the needs of an aging population.
The tensions between accommodation and assimilation are likely to become even more acute as increasing diversity continues to stretch the fabric of Canadian identity in new directions.