OTTAWA — Canadians appear increasingly concerned about situation at the border — even if the overall numbers of crossers are down — which experts warn could harden attitudes against newcomers and fan populist sentiment.
Federal statistics show the Mounties apprehended 3,944 irregular migrants between official border crossings through the first four months of this year, a 48 per cent drop compared to the 7,612 crossers detained over the same period in 2018.
Despite the drop, polling data suggests Canadians are increasingly concerned about immigration levels in Canada due in large part to the influx of irregular migrants.
Polling from Ipsos Public Affairs presented at an immigration summit suggested Canada ranks among the top three countries in the world where citizens believe more steps need to be taken harden immigration rules.
Company CEO Darrell Bricker told the conference that further data suggesting only 38 per cent of Canadians believe immigration has had a positive impact on the country, means conditions are ripe in Canada for a strong voice to come along to fan the flames of nativism — a form of populism that focuses on protecting the interests of native-born Canadians over newcomers.
"The problem we've got on the immigration issue right now in terms of public opinion is that Canadians are really only seeing what's going on at the Quebec border and that's defining what they think about the issue," Bricker said, referencing the migrants who walk across the border through a forest path in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle.
Bricker said Canadians appear to believe the irregular migrant influx shows Canada's border is "anything but" a well-managed system.
"That's bad for people's attitudes on immigration. The government really needs to get this file under control," he said at the conference, held last week in Ottawa.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen pointed Wednesday to a newly launched "immigration matters" campaign designed to share positive stories of newcomers giving back to their communities.
But he acknowledged that Canada is not immune to a "wave of right-wing populism" sweeping through Western countries.
"Recent polling points to the worrying trend that some are falling prey to misinformation and fear mongering, peddled by some politicians and emerging far-right groups," Hussen said in a statement.
"The Business Council of Canada urged politicians not to make immigration a key issue in the next election because the business community understands that immigrants will be the only way to fill skills and labour shortages today and in the near future as all baby boomers retire. We must remind ourselves that Canada benefits from immigrants and that when faced with misinformation, we must fight fear with facts."
The public, however, does not differentiate between refugees and immigrants who come to Canada through economic or family reunification streams, said Fen Hampson, executive director of the World Refugee Council.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, said her time as a policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and as an attache for the U.S. embassy in Ottawa has convinced her a majority of the public hold moderate opinions about immigrants.
She said she would like to hear more from this silent majority to make the political debate over immigration less partisan and less extreme.
"I want to see more moderates be militant," she said at the conference.
"The debate is here, it's in the middle, because that's where solutions arise, not at the extremes. Let's talk about and activate people to get stuff done to make co-operation and negotiation popular again, because that's how you get things done."
Hampson told attendees that Canada's migrant influx is nothing compared to the global refugee crisis.
More than 68 million people were driven from their homes in 2017 due to wars, persecution and natural disasters, according to the United Nations refugee agency's 2018 global trends report.
In the same year Canada received 50,000 refugees seeking protection.
"Uganda has over a million forcibly displaced (migrants). They're a very poor country, with very low per capita income. We're a very rich country and our problems should be put into perspective — they're trivial," Hampson said.
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Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press