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How the shifting rhetoric around immigration could shape Federal election 2019

Written by

Ali Salam

In recent memory, Canadian elections have focused on a variety of issues: free trade, the economy, the environment, and of course, taxes. Sometimes, as in 2000, 2008 and 2011, the only issue that ends up mattering is leadership.

One that hardly gets top of the marquee billing, however, is immigration. Whether that changes in this fall’s election remains to be decided, but the conditions are certainly in place for immigration to become an issue that may shape the campaign.

The United Nations, for example, noted in 2016 that over 65 million people were either refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced due to conflict, famine and other factors, marking a high watermark in human history (for comparison, World War II in Europe was said to have displaced between 11 and 20 million people).

While the movement of refugees is organized primarily through camps administered by the United Nations, and internally displaced people remain within the borders of their home country (sometimes not by choice), “asylum seekers” has become a term that Canadians are increasingly familiar with—and not necessarily for altruistic reasons.

Asylum seekers, by definition, have left their home countries in seek of protection, usually from war, famine or abject poverty. While Canada’s geographic reality has long prevented the mass movements of people seen in Europe and Africa at various times, the conditions that govern the behavior of those seeking a better life changed, and with them the discourse here in Canada.

In early 2017, shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, his administration made a series of decisions that had the effect of setting a departure clock on various groups of non-residents in that country. And from early 2017 to late 2018, significant numbers of asylum seekers chose to pass through the United States, and cross the border into Canada to claim asylum here.

The vast majority did so in Quebec, but crossings were also seen in Manitoba and British Columbia to a much lesser extent. Complicating matters further was that many of those in Quebec would continue on to Ontario after their initial processing.

While those numbers initially surged, they decreased significantly towards the end of 2018. As it stands today, the federal government was able to work with the Quebec, Manitoba and B.C. governments (as well as certain jurisdictions in Ontario, like Toronto) to find compromise and relatively mutual agreement on the matter.

Yet the lasting impact of these events has been a shift in the tone of immigration as an election topic both this year and likely into the future. There are some particular considerations to watch carefully:

The anti-immigration sentiment

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is not a new phenomenon in Europe and the United States, but the evolution of rhetoric in Canada to match xenophobic views abroad has become an unexpected challenge for politicians. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, in particular, will likely have to deal with opposing currents.

On one hand, Scheer can court a seemingly growing segment on the right that is not only against Canada’s current policies around refugees and asylum seekers, but hold views against welcoming many—if not all—immigrants from outside of Europe. At the same time, key to a Conservative victory under Stephen Harper, and vital to Scheer this October, is courting the vote of those same ethno-cultural groups maligned by some on the right, especially in must-win suburban areas like Ontario’s 905 region and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

This balancing act presents a puzzle for Scheer that he still hasn’t solved, and the issue will likely occupy the Conservative campaign team this summer.

The wider domestic immigration dynamic

If that sounds like a cakewalk in the making for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals, think again. Backlash around asylum seekers entering Canada wasn’t just the domain of “old stock Canadians” as Stephen Harper called them during the 2015 campaign, but of New Canadians as well.

These immigrants, coming from the Indian subcontinent, China, and the Philippines to cite Canada’s largest source countries, were angered by the arrival of those who they believed were jumping the queue into Canada, where they had undertaken a longer process to arrive as economic migrants.

Regardless of the differences that exist between these two groups (chief among them fleeing from often life-threatening persecution for asylum seekers) Trudeau and his MP’s have had some heavy lifting to manage this issue in those same key battlegrounds being targeted by Scheer.

While the asylum seeker issue itself has faded from the spotlight in recent months due to a reduction in border crossings, the rhetoric in Canada seems to have been altered at least in part because of it.

How that will impact this year’s election is yet to be seen. But savvy election watchers will be keeping it in mind for when either party becomes increasingly desperate to round up votes from the seemingly growing number of Canadians who will be factoring immigration issues into their ballot box decision.

NATIONAL will, accordingly, be carefully tracking how the immigration issue takes shape in the campaign. Our experts are available to discuss how these trends and the election will impact the labour market, cross-border trade and tariffs, and regional economic development.

——— Written by Ali Salam, former Senior Vice-President, Public Affairs, NATIONAL Public Relations