We Canadians do like to think well of ourselves. We relish being reminded that the world likes us, that we live in a generous, progressive and welcoming country, and the tribulations afflicting the Trump-addled United States and Brexit-enfeebled United Kingdom are to be read as cautionary tales about narrow-mindedness, bad manners and dangerous gaucheries that it would be beneath us to indulge.
Justin Trudeau came on the scene as the embodiment of this notion of stylish Canadian sophistication, but after four years in government the Liberals are going into next week’s federal election with the image of their dashing matinee-idol leader rather tarnished. This matters, because they built their whole brand around Trudeau as a handsome, refugee-saving, Indigenous-Peoples ally. And now, the feminist, environmentalist champion of the middle class and those striving to join it doesn’t look quite as glamorous these days as he once did.
The reasons scarcely require enumeration. His blackface minstrelsy hobby. His underhanded purging of Jody-Wilson Raybould, a dynamic Indigenous woman, for her refusal to go along with what would have been an unseemly interference in the course of justice in the SNC-Lavalin case. His violations of the Conflict of Interest Act. His about-face on the promise of electoral reform. The spectacle he made of himself in India. His brutally unrewarded servility at the feet of China’s Xi Jinping.
But Trudeau’s great cunning is his skill in telling us what we so desperately want to hear about ourselves, and in persuading us that he personally embodies the better angels of our nature. This weird funhouse mirror effect is perhaps most pronounced when it comes to the issue of refugees and immigrants, which must be discussed in Liberal terms, lest something squalid or louche intrude into the conversation.
While Trudeau’s Liberals take the credit for the resettlement of so many Syrian refugees, it’s useful to recall that back in 2015, by the time Canadians went to the polls, there were only marginal differences separating the Liberal Party’s refugee resettlement proposals from those of the New Democrats and the Conservatives.
It is our own strange need for flattery, and perhaps a general disinclination to read beyond the headlines, that tends to sustain the picture Trudeau’s Liberals have painted of him, and of us. Take this CBC headline, for instance: “Canada resettled more refugees than any other country in 2018, UN says.” That’s just one of several similar headlines that were making the rounds this summer, and it’s the impression millions of Canadians are carrying around in their heads.
But what the headline references is a UN annual report ranking countries that have taken in refugees by way of the UN’s own resettlement program. Canada was in fact ninth on the UN’s list of countries accepting asylum claims in 2018, with 55,400 claims filed – 19,000 of which involve those unwanted claimants from all over the world who walked into Canada at such places as Roxham Road on Quebec’s border with New York.
Canada has taken in 60,000 Syrian refugees over the past five years or so, which is all to the good. But it is less a thing the Trudeau Liberals are entitled to boast about than a result of the generosity of ordinary Canadians that the Liberals needed to respond to and have also tried to keep a lid on. Most of those refugees were privately sponsored, not government-sponsored, and there has been a shifting annual cap on the number of refugees the federal government allows Canadians to sponsor.
While Trudeau’s Liberals take the credit for the resettlement of those Syrian refugees, it’s useful to recall that back in 2015, by the time Canadians went to the polls, there were only marginal differences separating the Liberal Party’s refugee resettlement proposals from those of the New Democrats and the Conservatives. Because the Conservatives planned to lift the annual cap on private sponsorship, it’s quite possible that more Syrian refugees would have been resettled in Canada by now had the Conservatives won the 2015 election.
The rescue of 60,000 Syrians from Bashar Assad’s barbarism is no small thing. But those people were carefully selected from the UN’s refugee camps for their suitability for resettlement in Canada. And while the numbers compare favourably to Donald Trump’s America – the total annual U.S. refugee admission average of 90,000 has dropped to 18,000 this year – Canada does not compare all that generously in a global context. Europe has taken about a million refugees, mostly Syrians, over the past four years. Turkey has taken in 3.7 million Syrian refugees since 2011, Lebanon nearly a million, Jordan 654,000, Egypt 130,000, and so on.
“Diversity is our strength,” Trudeau’s Liberals persist in reminding us. And immigration strengthens our diversity, and a rising immigration rate is necessary – from 330,000 last year to 350,000 in 2021 – owing to Canada’s low birthrates and aging population. On top of that there’s another 100,000 or so non-permanent immigrants in Canada every year – temporary foreign workers, students and so on. But immigration is doing a lot more for us than merely hedging against a future of nursing homes crowded with baby boomers.
According Stephen Punwasi, a quantitative analyst who specializes in the housing industry, were it not for immigration, Canada would be on the verge of a recession. That’s why the numbers you read about in the business pages look great – but out in the real world, it’s hard to notice anything great about them. “People aren’t really seeing the data that everyone says there getting. There’s economic anxiety, and a lot of people don’t understand where this is coming from.”
A recent Ipsos poll found that one in four Canadians is only barely making ends meet. Nearly half of respondents said they were about $200 a month away from destitution. Personal debt in Canada – credit card bills, mortgages, car payments – is higher than any other country in the G20. It’s no wonder that Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have managed to sustain some traction on an otherwise wholly uninspiring campaign involving tax cuts and tax credits aimed at Canadians who find they just can’t get ahead.
The latest news about Canada’s unemployment rate dropping to its lowest level in 40 years – that sounds great, right? Maybe. But three out of four of those jobs were in “self-employment,” otherwise known as the precarious gig economy, and the rest was in the public sector. Almost all of Canada’s population growth is due to immigration. Take immigrants out of the equation, and the modest rise in Canada’s per-capita Gross Domestic Product drops to almost zero.
Canada is using immigrants to keep the economy afloat, in other words. That’s the true story, and it’s rather less flattering than the story we usually tell ourselves.
Terry Glavin is a journalist and author.
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