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Tolerance Under Pressure?

By Frank Graves

[Ottawa – March 12, 2015] Canada has been singularly successful in solving the postmodern riddle of the clash of civilizations. While Europe and America have torn themselves apart over issues of immigration and race, Canada has been remarkably spared this particular affliction. All of this may be drawing to a close.

Under the forces of growing economic and cultural insecurities linked to security and terror, we are seeing a sharp erosion of our openness to diversity and immigration. Moreover, these issues are now prominent in the rhetoric of the political parties jostling for position in what will be a fiercely contested and extremely tight forty second federal election. Attitudes to immigration are in flux and we are trending to a less open society. These issues, along with concerns about religious dress have rarely been ballot booth issues in Canada. They are, however, the key sorters underlying major shifts in the voter landscape.

Public debates often generate more heat than light when stripped of evidence and reason and we offer this evidence in the service of a more informed debate. We note that while the public are in flux on this there is no simple consensus available to resolve the deep fractures we are seeing on public opinion. These fault lines are connected to contradictory values which are starkly divided than across different party supporters.

The long-term trajectory on attitudes to immigration and visible minority immigration

Canada has experienced a large influx of immigrants over the past twenty years. Over this period the incidence of immigration from members of visibility groups has burgeoned and Canada has morphed from a largely white society with ancestry drawn from Britain and France to an extremely heterogeneous society. As one can see the initial deep reservations about immigration dropped consistently over that period as we became more diverse. Multiculturalism was embraced by the public and the dire warnings of ethnic enclaves and diminution of national identity failed to occur. In our research, we found that national attachment has remained very high in Canada and that ethnic identifications actually dropped considerably. So not only did the “Selling Illusions” predictions of increased ethnic ghettoization not occur, but the reverse became true.

Also notable was the divergent paths of public opinion in Canada and the United States following the September 11th attacks. In both countries, there was a sharp rise in opposition to immigration but in Canada, it dissipated in the following years and reached an all-time low in 2005 (with only 25 per cent saying there were too many immigrants and less than one in five saying that of those coming too many were visible minority members. By stark contrast, the opposition levels were nearly three times higher in the United States, despite incoming levels of much less than half. Canadians were pro-trade, pro-immigration, and pro-diversity. This seemed to provide not only a societal advantage, but quite possibly an economic advantage in an increasingly globalised economy.


It is therefore with some chagrin that we look at the current poll numbers.


Recently, the overall incidence of opposition to immigration has nearly doubled and is threatening to crack the 53 per cent level we saw in 1993 and which caused it to be the lead front page story in the Globe and Mail (Michael Valpy wrote this explosive piece up). This story triggered a major national debate and we would submit that the Canadian public and governments responded in an enlightened manner which produced the positive sentiments we outlined earlier. Not only is opposition to immigration in general plumbing heights not seen in twenty years but the racial discrimination test, (forgetting about the numbers coming, are too many not white?) has just crossed the 40-point threshold for the first time ever.

And let’s be clear about this. While opposition to immigration can be driven by factors other than racial discrimination, saying that of those who are coming, too many just aren’t white is a racist sentiment. It may not be a particular insidious form of racism but it is racism and the overall numbers are not particularly flattering for those who believe in an open and tolerant society.

The demographic fault lines are interesting, but the far more interesting and important divides occur across partisan constituencies. Considering the three main parties, we can see a vivid difference in how the visible minority question sorts supporters of the three main parties. Neither Liberal nor NDP parties should be overly smug that fully one-third of their supporters think too many of those coming to Canada are visible minorities. But the Conservative Party, which owes much of its success to wooing new Canadians, is another story. Jason Kenney may (admirably) want your votes, but half of the constituents his party represents would prefer fewer new non-white immigrants.


And how about those niqabs?

One of the things I recall vividly about the immigration debate in Toronto in the early nineties was how inflamed and emotional it was. In addition to surveys, we did focus groups and these were withering to behold. Mixing visible minorities and white participants was a practice to be avoided at that time. The white European population were displaying aggravated cultural insecurities. “We can’t say the Lord’s Prayer in school anymore. We are banishing Christmas from our public lexicon. I am afraid to get on the subway with all those scary looking immigrants wearing weird hats. And don’t get me going on turbans on Mounties!” It was a toxic stew of fear and hostility at that time. Yet this recollection sounds utterly at odds with the relative harmonious diversity of a much more racially and ethnically heterogeneous Toronto we saw emerge in the early part of this new century.

Given the intensity of those debates and how they faded with time, we might want to consider the future prospects for current views on the niqab. As one can readily see, Mr. Harper’s position enjoys broad public support. We also point out that there is very high correlation across those who subscribe to the offensive position and those who think there are too many visible minorities coming to Canada. Not all of the supporters of this ban at think there are too many visible minorities coming but virtually all of those who think that support the ban.


It is also notable that the Conservative resurgence has been established in precisely the demographics where these less tolerant attitudes to visible minorities and the niqab are strongest. It is also notable that the Bloc Québécois resurgence is the epicentre of the most allergic attitudes to visible minority immigration (59 per cent) and a near consensus support of 88 per cent for the ban on niqab at citizenship ceremonies.


It is unclear how this debate will evolve and what if any consequences it will have for the 42nd Generation Election of Canada. There is no question that it is currently sorting the electorate more than issues they say are of greater concern; notably a moribund economy. It is, however, the first really explicit political debate about values that we have seen in Canada for some time. The Conservative movement has been very successful in using values to secure emotional engagement from its supporters. Progressive parties have been less adroit and active on this front. It will be interesting to see how this value debate emerges because that reticence has been shattered on this issue. It will also be interesting to see if the values debate extends to other critical areas of value difference across the parties (many of which the progressive side enjoys a much clearer and growing advantage such as the value of equality of opportunity).

And in closing, as a long time student of the issue of tolerance and diversity, it will be important and fascinating to watch which path Canada ultimately chooses on these value choices.


This study was conducted using High Definition Interactive Voice Response (HD-IVR™) technology, which allows respondents to enter their preferences by punching the keypad on their phone, rather than telling them to an operator. In an effort to reduce the coverage bias of landline only RDD, we created a dual landline/cell phone RDD sampling frame for this research. As a result, we are able to reach those with a landline and cell phone, as well as cell phone only households and landline only households.

The field dates for this survey are March 4-10, 2015. In total, a random sample of 2,950 Canadian adults aged 18 and over responded to the survey. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/-1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Please note that the margin of error increases when the results are sub-divided (i.e., error margins for sub-groups such as region, sex, age, education). All the data have been statistically weighted by age, gender, region, and educational attainment to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to Census data.

Click here for the full report: Full Report (March 12, 2015)

5 comments to Tolerance Under Pressure?

  • Murray Corren

    As a Canadian born citizen, I disturbs me greatly to learn about people’s attitudes regarding the questions you have presented to them. As a teacher, mostly of young children but also of adults training to become future teachers, and as someone who has striven vigorously and all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to defend the rights and to promote Canadians’ acceptance of sexual and gender identity, I am ashamed to know so much ignorance, racism and prejudice exists in Canada. I have been living for a number of years in Mexico and in my conversations with Mexicans invariably I hear them extol Canada and Canadians in the highest terms. Unfortunately, recently I am embarrassed to inform them that so many unfortunate things have changed in Canada since the Conservatives came to power that I no longer recognize my own country. Hopefully, Canadian voters will wake up before the next election, realize that the efforts of Harper and the Reformacons to sow divisiveness and hatred are destroying our country and its international reputation, and vote for a government that promotes unity, diversity and acceptance of all kinds of difference.

  • Jay Farrow

    I find it interesting that Corren used his first five words to immediately and definitively distinguish himself as a “Canadian born citizen”. As opposed to just a “Canadian” who is a tolerant citizen, as he extols we all should be.
    In his view, we should all embrace cultural, ethnic, sexual, religious and political diversity and then all sit around the camp fire singing Kumbaya. I have often found that many educators perception of reality is clouded by the rarified economic and social atmospheres within which they live. I do agree with him on one point, I too no longer recognize my own Country. But not for the reasons he states. Governance is based on majority rule; the poll clearly indicates a majority. Governance is not based on constantly yielding to the demands of minorities with self-proclaimed rights upheld by Courts who share the same rarified atmosphere Corren does. He doesn’t recognize his Country because it is he and those like him who have and are giving it away.
    Based on his current country of residence, I can only suggest that he and Michael Ingnatieff are cut from the same cloth. Both want to save Canada from itself, but it’s not good enough for them to live here.

  • Timm Tian

    The opposition to niqabs during the citizenship ceremony is because it represents more than just a religious garb. If Islamic extremism was not so globally active Canadians might be less inclined to care, but it has become associated with female segregation and oppression.

    Sometimes religious values are just not compatible with secular values. Especially when the fear of God trumps the fear of law. We tolerate all faiths in Canada, but they have to be reasonable. Freedom of religion does not mean that the government will tolerate all things religious, it only means the government will not make you choose between faith and the law.

    Past examples include letting Sikh students carry their religious daggers to school and letting Hutterites get drivers licences without taking a photo. Note the unreasonableness of the alternative – no school and no driving, forever. In this niqab scenario, we only ask for one hour of your lifetime to put aside your beliefs and affirm your commitment to this country. This is where the unreasonableness slides to the individual’s side.

  • Dave Quinn

    I must have been living in a bubble for a long time. Sad dark times indeed.

  • Lon Palmer

    The saddest, darkest thing is that the government will not respect the wishes of its own citizens and decrease this unwanted immigration. Also, I note that the number of those accepting present immigration policies or falling into the “I don’t know” category are not reported, probably because the anti-immigration blocks are, in fact, the largest. And they have no party to vote for. Ver sad and dark for democracy, if you ask me.

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