Jen Gerson: The immigration consensus is collapsing
What are the Conservatives going to do about it?
By: Jen Gerson
I like economists, generally, but one thing I will note about them is that they are rarely blunt. Particularly on issues of deep cultural or political sensitivity, they have a tendency toward cautious language couched in caveats and jargon, and they generally — generally — try to avoid alarmism.
Which is why this story from the Globe and Mail this week caught my attention. According to a report released by the National Bank of Canada, this country is caught in a "population trap." We need to curb our explosive population growth — largely driven by historic immigration numbers since the Liberals took office.
“Canada is caught in a population trap that has historically been the preserve of emerging economies ... We currently lack the infrastructure and capital stock in this country to adequately absorb current population growth and improve our standard of living.”
If you've been following our housing situation, this isn't exactly news. However, in a country that is deeply invested in immigration as both an economic and a cultural value, the fact that mainstream thinkers are so openly calling for a radical shift in our immigration policy, and that this call represents an emerging consensus — well, that's new.
Canada has long prided itself on being open and welcoming to newcomers; in fact, this has been a point of pride especially in comparison to the odious debates about illegal and uncontrolled immigration south of the border. (The fact that we don't have a lot of illegal or uncontrolled immigration owing to our geography has always allowed us to be unduly smug on the issue.)
This consensus has been strong throughout my entire adult life, with arguments against immigration largely relegated to a fringe, often outright racist minority.
But both the incredible increase in legal immigration, combined with economic stress, housing prices, and health-care systems in crisis, is rapidly eroding that consensus. If this trend continues, it will represent one of the most significant changes in our political debates in a generation, and how the Conservatives — and the Conservatives, particularly — handle it will be a defining test of their maturity and fitness for leadership. Can they lead a conversation about immigration levels in a way that is elevated, values-driven, and fair-minded, or will they be tempted to play to a conspiratorial nativist backlash?
I don't know the answer to that question, but I'm increasingly convinced that the party will not be able to avoid answering it.
First, to show you what I mean, let's look at some data. Not just the actual population growth we're experiencing — that's uncontroversial and well documented. The Liberals have set its immigration targets at half a million annually, and the country’s real population increased by 1.2 million last year alone, fluffing our economic indicators while putting enormous pressure on an already over-priced housing market. Rather, I'm watching polling that demonstrates the collapse of the immigration consensus in real time.
In October, Ipsos found that 73 per cent of those polled agreed that Canada should cut its immigration targets until the housing shortage eases. A further strong majority — 68 per cent — thought the country should cap international student visas for the same reason.
A November poll from Abacus suggests that more than two-thirds of Canadians now believe that immigration levels are too high — a six-point increase since July. As we might expect, those numbers break down by generation and party affiliation. Younger Canadians still tend to see the benefits of immigration outweighing the downsides, and I suspect this is a perennial trend.
The results also vary starkly by party, with up to 82 per cent of Conservatives expressing concern about immigration levels, compared to roughly 60 per cent of Liberals. Again, this isn't surprising, necessarily. What is new is not the disparity, but rather the pan-partisan agreement: while a majority of Liberal voters still believe that immigration is making Canada better off, a majority of that same cohort also believes that current targets are too high. In other words, we're starting to see a cross-partisan consensus emerge.
The regional breakdowns are also interesting.
The provinces most likely to believe that immigration targets are too high: Alberta — fine, whatever — followed by Ontario, and Atlantic Canada. Ontario, if you will recall, is a key strategic battleground for the Conservatives. Further, if Liberal fortress Atlantica is tracking closer to Alberta on this one, then a path to electoral victory for Pierre Poilievre is unfolding in these numbers. I trust I am not the only person to see it.
Here, it is necessary for me to add a caveat.
I'm heavily pro-immigration and I like operating in a political culture in which "more the merrier" is the settled consensus position. I think that much of the world is headed for a demographic collapse that risks challenging our collective quality of life and civilizational advancement; Canada's low birth rate ensures that we are dependent on our ability to attract new citizens from elsewhere, something that is going to get harder to do as humanity ceases to produce as many people. I also believe there is something deeply beautiful about the very concept of Canada as a post-modern nation bound not by the ancient grudges of ethnicity or religion, but rather by shared small-l liberal values.
To that end, of course, our first priority ought to be to fix the state capacity problems that inhibit our ability to welcome all the immigrants. From health care and infrastructure, to housing starts, we should be able to resolve our policy and logistics challenges. We should be able to just build lots of houses on our ample supplies of land, for example.
We should be able to do a lot of things.
The problem is that we won’t. Canada has lost its ability to fix deep problems, move quickly, and build things. Why we've lost this is the subject of another column — and this great Twitter thread — but for the purposes of this essay, suffice it to say, in as value-neutral language as I am capable of conjuring, that I think we simply don't have these abilities anymore.
Economist Mike Moffatt recently released a report arguing that Ontario needs to build 1.5 million houses in the next 10 years to keep up with demand, almost twice as many houses as have ever been built in any previous decade. And despite all of the money and attention and political capital that is of late being focused on fixing our housing shortage, report after report keeps telling us that housing starts are, in fact, down. Just this week it was reported that we had a good December, but not good enough to turn around a bad annual trend: housing start dropped seven per cent last calendar year.
Does anybody actually think we can do this? I mean, really really? If I were to corner Sean Fraser in a dank Ottawa pub and ply him with outrageous amounts of hard liquor, would I find a happy Housing Minister? Or would I find a sad man?
Does anybody think we're not going to spend the next 20 years careening from one health-care crisis to the next, as the Boomers enter their senescence?
Because I don't.
So, now what?
We’re utterly dependent on immigration to hire the nurses and carpenters we desperately require to resolve the crises in health care and housing that increasing immigration will exacerbate. It leaves us with a deeply exploitative immigration system that takes on more people than we can house or care for in order to gloss over our own deep-seated economic weaknesses, which are increasingly reflected in stalling per-capita GDP, poor productivity and, inevitably, reduced quality of life.
This isn't about "blaming immigrants" for our problems, either. The decay of state capacity and our inability to build enough houses to meet demand are the result of our own internal failures. Immigration didn't put stress on our system: We Canadians let our institutions weaken to the point where we are unable to cope with the stress we've chosen to put on it through our own immigration dependence. The fault is entirely our own.
Worse, the symptoms of this "population trap" are going to be far worse for recent immigrants than for more established Canadians.
And by "established Canadians" I'm not just talking pasty folk, here. People who have been in this country for generations are going to be better able to cope with problems like high housing prices by leaning on familial wealth and stored equity, for example. I suspect they are also going to disproportionately benefit from cheap labour — thanks, Temporary Foreign Worker program, and bullshit international student visas!
Established Canadians are going to be able to compound their financial advantage at the expense of newcomers, who are going to have a harder time getting ahead than previous generations due to economic factors wildly beyond their control.
My fear is that the path we're on is going to ingrain generational economic inequality that will fall loosely along ethnic lines. That's not sustainable in a country ostensibly bound by post-modern liberal values — and only those values.
And that brings us to the second half of the immigration conversation, and the one that remains taboo: culture.
Canada created a durable and lasting consensus on immigration by leaning on a shared national mythology: that from a colonial past, we forged a principled multicultural nation in which people from around the world are able to honour their heritage and traditions while building a prosperous and successful life for themselves and their descendants. This narrative requires that all of us — regardless of our divergent ideologies or religious views — cohere around a shared set of post-enlightenment principles: the equality of man, the rule of law, tolerance, and the rest. We take this highly abstract concept of nationhood so for granted that we’ve forgotten how historically rare it is.
This is not to say Canada ever imagined itself to have an unblemished history, but rather that this is a nation that saw itself as a fundamentally good and noble project, and therefore some place worth immigrating to, and a culture worth integrating with.
The last nine years of Liberal government have undermined that vision. Under the Trudeau Liberals, instead what we have been regularly subjected to Canada as a white supremacist genocidal settler state. And, hey, to what extent that historical reckoning is good or necessary is not for me to say: but if "Canada is bad, actually" is the starting position, by what delusion do any of us presume to perpetuate it?
A post-modern nation state that has no sense of itself, and no belief in its own inherent value, is not an experiment worth continuing, now is it? How do we expect to welcome and integrate 500,000 new Canadians annually into a corrupt national project? If "Canadian" isn't something worth being, why should anyone sublimate their ethnic or religious grievances into this vicious national identity?
I think this is the tension that lies at the heart of this growing unease around immigration, and it's going to be the most difficult one for the Conservatives to navigate. There will be those within the party that follow this thread directly into white grievance and conspiracies like great replacement theory, the xenophobic fear that "elites" are trying to demographically and culturally replace white people through mass migration.
I think that theory is insane, to be clear, but I'm also noticing it wend its way into politics in weird and destructive ways.
A small example: before the holidays, certain conservative social media circles were put into a state of high uproar over the construction of a 55-foot statue of the Hindu deity Hanuman on a private temple complex in Brampton.
Initially, I was baffled and confused and even a bit amused by the upset. After all, this wasn't a publicly funded monument. It was on private property, and isn't respect for private property a sacrosanct value for conservatives? This wasn’t rational.
The controversy was only explicable when we examine the emotional subtext of the complaints: that there was something deeply menacing about Hanuman to these people. They saw him overlooking the suburbs of Brampton with a colonial intent. (Irony abounds!) One of the most telling tweets came from one angry individual who said something to the effect: "They tore down our John A. Macdonald statues, but, sure, Hanuman is great."
To this gentleman: the fine devout Hindus of Brampton did not tear down your John A. Macdonald statues — and I highly doubt they would any pick bones with historic or civic monuments.
We, Canadians, tore down our own statues (or allowed them to be torn down) as part of an internal process of historical reckoning. Again, immigrants are not doing anything to Canada. They are Canada, and as such, they share in this country’s problems, which are largely self created.
And herein lies the challenge for Conservatism. It's not simply a matter of fixing Canada so that this country can accommodate the radical growth it needs to thrive — though that's certainly part of it. They are also going to need to articulate a Canadian identity and set of values that restores a sense of civic dignity without allowing that message to be hijacked by a crude and racist nativism. They're going to need to argue for a rational and measured immigration quota without reducing the conversation to own-the-libs shitposting. I think that Pierre Poilievre has the maturity to talk about immigration in a way that is productive and positive, but I'm not irretrievably convinced of it. And beyond his capacity, he’s going to have to decide that that is what he wants to do.
And I think that this — more than any other issue — will pose the real and most fundamental moral test of his leadership.
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