Public Opinion About Immigration & Refugees

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What do Canadians think about immigration today, and how has this changed over the past year?

As part of its Focus Canada public opinion research program (launched in 1976), the Environics Institute updated its research on Canadian attitudes about immigration and refugees. This survey was conducted in partnership with the Century Initiative. This survey is based on telephone interviews conducted (via landline and cellphones) with 2,002 Canadians between September 4 and 17, 2023. A sample of this size drawn from the population produces results accurate to within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points in 19 out of 20 samples. 

Executive Summary

2023 has been a year in which Canadians have become less satisfied with the direction of the country and more pessimistic about the state of the economy. At the same time as the country welcomed a record number of immigrants. Against this backdrop, the latest Focus Canada research shows there has been a significant increase in the belief that there is too much immigration to Canada, due in large part to a jump in the proportion citing concerns about how newcomers might be contributing to the current housing crisis. This reflects a dramatic shift since a year ago in terms of how the public views the number of immigrants being accepted, but there has been no comparable change in what Canadians think about immigrants themselves or to the contribution they make to their communities and the country.

Over the past year Canadians have become more negative about the direction of the country and the economy, and in governments’ ability to plan for future challenges. Inflation and the cost of living, along with housing affordability and interest rates, are now seen as the top issues facing the country.

In 2023, Canada reached a historic milestone – the country’s population surpassed 40 million people. The number of people living in Canada rose by more than one million in 2022 – 96 percent due to international migration. This represents the highest annual population growth rate since the post-war boom of 1957. Immigration now accounts for virtually all of Canada’s net labour force growth. In addition to the meeting labour market needs, Canada’s immigration system serves other goals, including humanitarian ones (in the case of refugees), welcoming international students, and bringing family members together.

This increase has taken place at the same time as growing financial stress for many Canadians who are struggling with high inflation and a so-called housing crisis, contributing to growing concerns about the direction of the economy. This past year has imposed further challenges on many Canadians due to an overly-stretched health care system and environmental disruption from flooding and devastating wildfires.

The result is a public that is now negative about the direction of the country, concerned about their economic prospects, and with diminishing confidence in governments’ ability to address the country’s challenges ahead. Inflation and the cost of living continue to be among the most important issues facing Canada, with housing affordability also now front and centre concern. As in past years, however, very few single out immigration or refugees as the top problem facing the country.

Canadians are now significantly more likely than a year ago to say there is too much immigration to the country, dramatically reversing a trend dating back decades. For the first time, a growing number of Canadians are questioning how many immigrants are arriving, rather than who they are and where they are coming from.

The latest Focus Canada research shows a significant jump in the proportion of Canadians who believe the country accepts too many immigrants, marking a dramatic reversal from a year ago when public support for immigration numbers stood at an all-time high, which at the time marked a rising trend stretching back three decades. Canadians are still more likely to disagree than agree that immigration levels are too high, but the gap between these two opposing views has shrunk over the past 12 months (from 42 percentage points to just 7). This shift in perspective has happened across the population, but especially in Ontario and B.C., as well as among top-income earners and first-generation Canadians.

A strong majority of Canadians continue to believe that immigration is good for the economy, but rising concerns about immigration numbers have weakened the public consensus on this point over the past 12 months. Fewer also now agree that immigration is needed to maintain the country’s population growth, although this opinion remains more widely held in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada.

The true significance of this latest shift in public opinion lies in the fact that it is the first time in many decades (if ever) that a growing number of Canadians are questioning how many immigrants are arriving in the country, as opposed to who they are and where they are coming from, which has been the primary focus of public debate for much of the country’s history.

This expanding view that Canada is taking in too many immigrants is driven in large part by rising concerns about how newcomers may be contributing to the housing crisis. At the same time, the public is now much less likely to say that too much immigration represents a threat to the country’s culture and values.

Canadians who say the country is accepting too many immigrants cite various reasons for this view, but in 2023 they are most likely to express concerns about the arrival of so many newcomers contributing to the country’s problems with housing availability and affordability; this view is much more prominent than a year ago. Less prominent are other concerns such as immigrants placing pressure on public finances, taking jobs from other Canadians, over-population, and insufficient screening. At the same time, the public is now much less likely than a year ago to say high immigration numbers pose a threat to Canada’s or Quebec’s culture and values.

Apart from rising concerns about the extent of immigration, there has been no corresponding change in how Canadians feel about immigrants themselves, how they integrate, and what they contribute to society. The public is much more likely to say that newcomers make their own communities a better place than a worse one.

Canadians have long been divided when it comes to issues around the legitimacy of refugees and the integration of some newcomers into Canadian society. This continues to be the case in 2023, but these opinions have changed little over the past year, suggesting that increased concerns about the number of immigrants arriving have not turned Canadians away from who they believe should be allowed to settle.

Moreover, many Canadians say they value the presence of immigrants in their local community and see benefits resulting from the multicultural diversity they bring, as well as their contribution to the economy and jobs. Few believe that immigrants make their community a worse place, and even within this group the perceived impact of newcomers on housing does not emerge as a principal complaint. This suggests that Canadians’ recent concerns about immigration’s effect on housing is more a function of national and regional media narratives about a housing crisis than locally-based developments and direct experience.

Canadian public opinion about immigration is broadly similar across the country, with some regional and group variation. As in past surveys, perspectives diverge most sharply across partisan political lines.

These latest research findings broadly reflect opinions across the country and among groups defined by demographic characteristics, with notable variation on some questions. Quebecers, who in the past have been among the most sensitive to the potential impact of newcomer integration, are now as likely as other Canadians to be comfortable with the country’s growing diversity, as Ontarians and British Columbians have become a bit less so over the past year. Perspectives in Quebec have changed significantly since the 1990s when a majority expressed concerns that immigration threatened their culture; today that is the minority view.

Opinions about immigration and refugees continue to diverge most sharply along partisan political lines, with supporters of the federal Liberal, New Democratic and Green parties on one side with generally positive views, in contrast with federal Conservative party supporters on the other side, who are more likely to express concerns. This divide has widened on the issue of immigration numbers (although supporters of all parties are now less supportive than a year ago), but has remained more or less consistent with respect to refugees, integration, and the other issues covered on this survey.

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