Canadian taboo against debating migration policy is basically over

Opinion: The housing crisis is sparking a respectful discussion of the way Ottawa has been unilaterally hiking population growth through migration.

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Seven years ago, Simon Fraser University political scientist Sanjay Jeram perceptively said that Canada was one of the last countries in the world where it is not permitted to discuss migration policy.

“The hidden consensus in Canada is that we don’t talk critically about immigration. The taboo against discussing it is very real,” said Jeram, who has a PhD from the University of Toronto, the city in which he was born and raised.

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“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on openness to immigration without limits,” Jeram said at the time. “I have never heard him talk about the potential consequences that immigration has for overcrowding, housing, opportunities for domestic-born workers, or the welfare state.”

The Canadian housing squeeze was on the top of Jeram’s must-be-discussed list in 2017, since many in Metro Vancouver, Toronto, Victoria and other cities were enduring an escalating affordability crisis. They still are.

The difference is that in the past six months the unspoken taboo against openly talking about migration issues has been mostly broken in Canada.

That is judging by what’s coming from prominent housing analysts, mainstream media coverage, and new polls by Leger, Environics and Abacus. We’re starting to become like most other nations.

Canada’s population grew by almost three per cent in the one-year period ending July 1, 2023 — bringing in 1.2 million, causing catapulting population growth that far exceeds earlier projections.

Many of the newcomers are among this year’s batch of almost 500,000 permanent residents, but most are temporary students and guest workers. The number of such non-permanent residents in Canada now totals 2.2 million.

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Even Trudeau’s Liberal government, which was always quick to silence migration skeptics with often-unfounded accusations of xenophobia, is showing hints it might reduce its record-high migration rates, at least in regard to study visas.

Polls confirm most Canadians believe new arrivals offer advantages to the country, which shows they are not concerned about immigrants themselves. The issue, instead, is Ottawa politicians’ actions on migration, which are unilaterally decided without debate in the House of Commons, and which lack any sort of coherent plan.

A new Abacus poll is among those showing the number of Canadians who believe immigration rates are too high has jumped to 67 per cent, up seven percentage points from July.

This negative view is shared by 62 per cent of residents born outside Canada.

Overall, women were most worried. And even 61 per cent of Liberal voters said rates were too high. Just two per cent of Canadians believed migration levels were “too low.”

Seven in 10 Canadians felt the number of immigrants was having a negative effect (pink and red) on “the cost and availability of housing.” (Source: Abacus)

One issue stood out. Abacus found seven in 10 respondents felt the number of immigrants was having a negative effect on “the cost and availability of housing.”

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A smaller cohort, 53 per cent, believe the high volume was having a negative affect on “access to health care,” and 51 per cent felt that way in regard to “congestion and traffic.”

In most countries, there is little migration debate, but not for the reasons many Canadians may think. The relative silence is because most countries take virtually no immigrants — including Japan, China, Turkey and Brazil.

Shelter costs are the main concern behind rising migration concerns in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and even France, with all these governments instituting major policy changes recently.

This week, Australia’s ruling Labor Party said the country’s immigration system is “broken” — contributing to a growing housing crisis and soaring rents. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will slash record intake levels to 250,000. Visa rules for international students and low-skilled workers will be tightened, and fees on foreign investors in housing will triple.

New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has also said his country’s migration totals are “unsustainable.” And British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this month took to social media to announce cutting future intake by 300,000 people a year, saying, “Immigration is too high. Today we’re taking radical action to bring it down. These steps will make sure that immigration always benefits the U.K.The French government of Emmanuel Macron, in addition, is engaged in a high-profile legislative attempt to better integrate newcomers.

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What of Canada? The nation’s new immigration minister, Marc Miller, was talking tough last week against a backdrop of nationally soaring rents.

He promised to require foreigners applying to study in Canada to have double the amount of funds currently required. He also threatened to shut down “unscrupulous” educational institutions. We can only wait to see if anything comes of Miller’s pledge.

Despite all this political action on the migration file, however, some observers say the taboo against criticism might not have completely vanished.

Their example is the way Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre this month launched a 15-minute video titled “Housing Hell,” which has been viewed by more than four million people. It lambastes the Liberals on housing unaffordability, but doesn’t mention the demand pressure caused by population growth.

Why dodge the obvious? Riding high in the polls, it’s possible Poilievre didn’t feel it necessary to directly cite what observers in the past called Canada’s “third rail” of migration. When ahead, why would Poilievre take even the increasingly small risk of handing opponents a wedge issue?

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Poilievre’s reluctance, however, has definitely not stopped the country’s most listened-to housing analysts — such as Ben Rabidoux, Steve Saretsky, John Pasalis, Ron Butler, Stephen Punwasi, Mike Moffat and others — from leading the way on scrutinizing the evidence on the impact of migration.

And even though bank economists are among the most cautious in the world, in the past year many have had said affordability will not return without big changes. “Unless Ottawa revises its immigration quotas downward, we don’t expect much relief for the 37 per cent of Canadian households that rent,” said economist Stefane Marion of the National Bank.

Every week, responsible economists, scholars, pundits and even some politicians are now making similar statements. If that doesn’t turn migration policy into a valid issue for respectful discussion in Canada, what will?

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