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J.J. McCullough: How you’re supposed to talk about immigration in Canada—and how Poilievre is poised to capitalize


A new Canadian citizen waves a Canada flag during a citizenship ceremony to mark Citizenship Week in Surrey, B.C., May 13, 2024. Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press.

Conventional wisdom on Canadian immigration policy has been shifting so quickly in recent years it can be hard to keep up. Here’s my best attempt at a succinct summary of the narratives that have defined the topic since the mid-2000s or so.

Stephen Harper

During the conservative prime ministership of Stephen Harper (2006-2015), annual immigration rates rose gradually but consistently. His first full year in office welcomed 236,758 new permanent residents; by his last year, that number had risen to 271,845. This had the effect of increasing Canada’s foreign-born population from 20 percent to 22 percent during his tenure.

These numbers both helped nullify immigration as a point of partisan polarization in Canadian elections—given the two main parties shared a common pro-immigration position—and earned the Conservative Party unusual praise from progressives for being less demagogic on the matter than right-wing parties elsewhere in the world. This culminated in a popular cliche during the Harper years that the prime minister’s pro-immigration stance was itself partially responsible for keeping him in power; that his enlightened position on the issue was being rewarded with newfound votes from grateful immigrant communities. Harper himself believed this to be true, but I’ve never seen much hard evidence proving it.

Since conservatives are stereotyped as being good economic stewards, and the Canadian economy performed well relative to peer countries during his rule, another popular bit of Harper-era immigration lore was that his Conservative government had come to understand immigration as a critical component of the country’s economic success. That is, the party was not just pro-immigration for gauzy, sentimental reasons, but flint-eyed, self-interested, capitalistic ones too.

It’s important to note that Harper’s immigration policies were never all that popular with the public. When asked to describe their ideal immigration agenda, polls consistently showed a majority favoring capping or decreasing the overall intake, which was of course the opposite of what Harper did. But it’s also true that the issue was low salience for most voters. Immigration did not poll high as a subject of concern during election campaigns, and since it wasn’t actively debated, feelings were rarely inflamed. It’s likewise worth noting that for all the praise Harper enjoyed as a savvy immigration proponent, the increases he presided over were mostly status quo; immigration to Canada had been rising steadily under prime ministers of both parties following a spike in the mid-1980s.

Justin Trudeau

In my opinion, all of this created a somewhat disingenuous elite narrative that there existed a broad “consensus” around immigration in Canadian society; that Canada’s immigration policies were largely uncontroversial, well-thought-out, economically rational, and indeed, a model for the world. When Justin Trudeau beat Harper in 2015 the “consensus” narrative consolidated further and featured prominently in the flattering stories about Canada-as-liberal-oasis that were briefly in vogue following Donald Trump’s election. Amid “wall-builders, door-slammers and drawbridge-raisers, Canada stands out as a heartening exception,” said The Economist in 2016.

These days, however, Trudeau is no longer popular to like or be seen as liking.

Conservatives are loath to admit this, but the Canadian press is often less liberally biased than just prone to gradually falling out of love with whoever’s in power, and Trudeau—now badly trailing in the polls—is today routinely subject to the same sort of late-regime scorn that Harper was near the end of his. One manifestation has been increasingly hostile columns accusing the prime minister of “breaking Canada’s immigration consensus” with an immigration intake that has gotten so high and so thoughtless it’s become an active provocation to the public.


Ottawa’s inaction is fraying the consensus on immigrationGlobe and Mail editorial board, Jan. 13, 2024

Anxiety over the housing shortfall threatens the Canadian consensus on immigration— Aaron Wherry, CBC Jan. 13, 2024

Canada’s unique, decades-old, pro-immigration consensus has been broken.”— Tony Keller, Globe and Mail, Jan. 19, 2024

For decades, there was solid political and social consensus on immigration in Canada. But recently, cracks in that consensus have emerged.— Althia Raj, Toronto Star, Feb. 9, 2024

…with housing and health-care shortages causing pain from coast to coast, it was never a good idea to take Canada’s pro-immigration consensus for granted.— Sabrina Maddeaux, National Post, Jul. 8, 2023

The arguments contained in pieces like these posit that the Trudeau-era hikes to immigration, which have risen from 296,346 new permanent residents in 2016 to 437,539 in 2022 (a nearly 50 percent increase in contrast to Harper’s modest 15 percent) have put enormous strain on endless aspects of Canadian society, including housing, transportation, health care, education, and of course employment. A growing population raises demand for just about everything—less than ideal in a country where a high cost of living has become the defining anxiety.

Second-guessing the economic costs/benefits of immigration has likewise led to increased focus on the kinds of immigrants that Canada is welcoming, which were never quite as “carefully selected” as popular legend held (the fact that Canadian “economic” class immigrants include dependents, for instance, has made it one of Canada’s most persistently deceptive statistics). Skepticism is now openly directed towards the hundreds of thousands of non-permanent foreign students entering Canada every year and the additional hundred thousand or so who come on “temporary foreign worker” visas (a subject of controversy during the Harper years as well). Trudeau has recently pledged to cut both categories—an unprecedented act in the “consensus” era, and evidence of the defensiveness he’s feeling on a file prime ministers are not usually accused of mishandling.

It’s relevant that the negative consequences of immigration that the press now accuses Trudeau of exacerbating mostly centre around the practical concerns that come with growing a mid-sized nation’s population at such a rapid clip (437,539 immigrants in one year is the equivalent of adding “an entire Halifax of newcomers” observed the National Post’s Tristin Hopper). The critique is rarely cultural, except to the extent Canadians are warned that undermining the pro-immigration consensus could increase support for crass, Trump-style politicians.As usual, Quebec exists in a dimension all its own. Crass Trump-style, or even Tucker Carlson-style, politicians thundering about immigration representing an existential threat to the Volkskörper are entirely mainstream there.

Pierre Poilievre

All this puts the Conservatives under Pierre Poilievre in an interesting position. The Canadian press, and thinky class more generally, has created a permission structure for him to run for prime minister on a platform of reducing immigration without fear of being characterized as a racist fearmonger. Polls suggest over 60 percent of Canadians both want and expect him to do this. Yet Poilievre himself has so far avoided articulating the extent to which he agrees; at his tightly scripted rallies he has no standard immigration-related applause line.

It’s possible his party is still captive to the legends of the Harper years—that they believe immigrant voters are “their” constituency to lose, and Conservatives must therefore tread lightly on rhetoric that could be seen as anti-immigrant. Despite a clearly changing tone in media coverage, the party might also simply not trust the press to accurately characterize a restrictionist Conservative immigration plan, and thus feel there’s no PR incentive to spend much time talking about the issue when they’re already enjoying such a solid lead in the polls.

Or, and perhaps most likely, Poilievre simply wants a restrictionist immigration agenda to be something he can roll out at a more politically opportune time—closer to the official fall 2025 election campaign when Canadians will be paying the most attention, and will be most aware of his promises.

Yesterday’s political taboo could be tomorrow’s ace in the hole.

This column originally appeared at J.J. McCullough’s Shortstack. 

Andrew Evans: Canada needs to get serious about security. Defending the Arctic would be a good start


Ranger Joe Amarualik drives his snowmobile during a Canadian Ranger sovereignty patrol on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, March 31, 2007. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

Like the famous Hemingway line, without many Canadians noticing, the world has gradually, then suddenly, become a much more dangerous place. As Christopher Sands of the Wilson Center recently wrote, “Global crises will not wait until Canada is ready.”

In the past several weeks, Russia began testing NATO’s borders—unilaterally nullifying the maritime borders of NATO members Finland and Lithuania and removing border buoy markers with Estonia—in an effort to replicate its similar piecemeal expansion tactics seen in Ukraine and Georgia. China conducted military exercises near Taiwan in a continued attempt to bring it to heel in response to a growing Taiwanese independence movement, intensifying pressure in the region. And the war in the Middle East continues to threaten to boil over and draw more countries into the mix.

Despite all this, Canada is on the outside looking in on global security issues. A recent Hub DeepDive highlighted the depressing depths of our defence spending deficiencies. As a result, our influence on the global stage has fallen significantly, as with the relationship between the country’s diminished state capability and relevancy on key global issues inextricably linked. This lack of influence flows through to our foreign policy in other areas as well.

As Richard Shimooka has written in The Hub, “Ottawa will face more calls to make concessions—and will in fact be forced to make them—due to its weak bargaining position.” If this continues and Canada is seen to be an unreliable partner or not pulling its weight, other areas of international priority for us, most importantly CUSMA, could come under strain.

Any reliable long-term defence strategy for Canada must be politically practical, able to withstand governmental turnover, and fit as a part of the national psyche. We’re not going to be mustering vast armies, navies, or air forces. But we can still provide a clear value proposition to our allies that can operate within these constraints.

Canada can forge a politically sustainable and internationally helpful position by focusing on the Arctic. As others have noted: “Canada will be unable to shape the parameters of the U.S.-China and NATO-Russia contests” in the North due to our limited capabilities. But we still have a clear national interest in asserting ourselves there. Assuming responsibility for safeguarding the northern approaches to North America would enable us to show our value to NATO, and more specifically, to the Americans.

For the Americans, it would relieve pressure in the region, and enable them to focus on the Pacific and Europe, while the Europeans could then focus on Europe. Incursions in the Arctic are a relatively low priority for the Russians and the Chinese in their own national interest, with the former prioritizing its “near-abroad” and post-Soviet states, and the latter in Southeast Asia. Because of these competing priorities amongst adversaries, Canada could secure the area for NATO at a relatively low cost, in terms of both men and materiel.

The recently released update from the Department of National Defence outlined the importance of the Arctic, but it framed it as part of a wide-ranging mandate that included climate change, a feminist foreign policy, and wider global instability. To be effective, Canada’s policy must be focused, politically sustainable, and concrete.

Domestically, an outright focus on the Arctic as the country’s defence priority would be more attractive because it would fulfill an international contribution without Canadians being sent overseas. Additionally, it could be paired with an appeal to securing Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, something that is consistently popular with voters across the country. As an Ipsos poll found in August 2023, 73 percent agreed that more military bases should be built in the far North to protect Canada’s Arctic. This nearly matches the 75 percent who think that the country needs to increase defence spending to protect Canadian sovereignty.

Not only is Arctic security currently popular, but it has been for a long time, which should help to provide confidence for political parties seeking to put forward an Arctic defence strategy. Strong public support is vital to building a long-standing strategy and would make it more politically attractive than other military-related policies.

Focusing specifically on the Arctic can enable us to develop the tactics, equipment, and human knowledge necessary to be strong and resolute defenders of the North. Deep-cold-weather-capable surveillance drones, better mapping of underwater areas, and unmanned undersea drones are just a few examples of how Canada can develop capabilities.

As a whole, this type of defence specialization could help to spur domestic economic development outside the traditional military procurement channels, which have been roundly criticized for cost overruns and time delays. With the future possibilities for drone military technology being shown today in Ukraine, there is no reason to think that constrained Canadian military budgets could not find attractive cost savings.

Building our capabilities in the North will be an ideal proving ground for Canada’s defence future. Not only can it find political resonance among Canadians and key allies, but it will improve Canada’s institutional knowledge of how to engage in significant military deployments to counter another state, something that has atrophied since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. And if the world continues to become more dangerous in the future, we will be ready for further defence commitments.