Protestors on the Ontario border (Geoff Robins / AFP)

February 1, 2024   6 mins

As the United States and Texas state governments clash over the Mexican border, a very different kind of immigration crisis is taking place elsewhere in North America. Unlike in the divided US, Canada is supposed to be one of the world’s most solidly pro-immigration societies. More than just another self-satisfied Justin Trudeau facade, this attitude has been attested to by historically high levels of public support.

However, an unfolding shift in public sentiment may now change that. Amid a housing crunch and soaring costs of living, Canadians are turning against the prospect of welcoming more immigrants. And the Trudeau government has slowly started to bend under this pressure.

But unlike the rest of the West, Canadians are not advancing this argument via populist rabblerousers or angry mass protests. Instead, Canada’s turnaround is being led by cadres of respectable, credentialed and, for the most part, small-l liberal experts and commentators, who are making the case for immigration reduction in terms that are academic and utilitarian, rather than emotive and atavistic. And, while there has been a rise in populism in recent years, within the Conservative Party and elsewhere, these forces have been unable or unwilling to capitalise on anti-immigration sentiment.

This unique set of circumstances has led to a distinct form of restrictionism, a “polite backlash”, with stereotypically Canadian characteristics. Being driven by educated elites, it plays out in the rarefied spaces of establishment opinion, where opposition to Ottawa’s temporary migrant policies (which has seen more explosive growth than the permanent stream) has materialised.

For instance, the editorial pages of the newspaper of record, The Globe and Mail, have recently featured pleas for “aggressive action to reduce the number of temporary migrants”, along with warnings that businesses “should not be subsidised through the import of cheap labour”. Similar sentiments were heard in the CBC’s nightly news program, which hosted a debate on the question: “Housing crisis vs. immigration: Is it time to slow things down?” Twitter, meanwhile, abounds with commentary by housing experts calling for Ottawa to “substantially reduce the number of visas for both international students and [foreign workers]”. A respected former Bank of Canada governor likewise criticised the fixation on juicing up growth through immigration, which retarded productivity: “On a per-person basis, the economy has been shrinking.”

These objections to the status quo amount to what the Globe describes as “practical concerns about the current pace of immigration, not ideological opposition” to immigration itself, which most (if not all) of these thought leaders continue to support in principle. We are seeing that rare thing: a pragmatic, context-driven response among segments of Canada’s expert class that also matches recent shifts in public opinion.

Because data from the country’s major polling firms, collected over the last few months, all show overwhelming support for cutting immigration numbers as a response to cost-of-living challenges: “68% agree — Canada should put a cap on international students until the demand for affordable housing eases” (Ipsos); “An increasing proportion of Canadians [61%] want Canada to accept fewer immigrants in 2024” (Nanos Research); “Canadians… believe that immigrants are contributing to the housing crisis (75%) and putting pressure on the health care system (73%)” (Leger). This convergence of views across large swathes of Canadian society has proved unignorable.

Last week, Trudeau’s minister for immigration, Marc Miller, announced cuts to the country’s intake of international students, which has seen exorbitant growth in the last year, and now accounts for a staggering 1 million people, or 2.5% of Canada’s population. (To put the figure in perspective: this means that Canada is hosting almost as many international students as US institution, despite the US population being roughly nine times bigger.) This comes after Statistics Canada figures revealed that “as many as 1 in 5 study permit holders in Canada are not actually studying at the institutions to which they have been accepted”, demonstrating how education has become a back door to the job market.

The new policy will see international undergraduate visas capped at 360,000 in 2024, a one-third reduction from last year, and a rationing of these visas among the provinces, along with changes to the “Post-Graduate Work Program”, widely regarded as a pathway to permanent residency for students. Beyond policy details, this volte-face amounts to an admission of a longstanding truth: the existing system has served as a cash cow for tuition-hungry schools and rent-hungry landlords, as well as a source of cheap labour for employers. The new changes are expected to offer some temporary relief to runaway rents prices (though economists disagree by how much).

Though these changes don’t go far enough for some (including this author), at the very least, it is a signal that Trudeau’s Liberals are willing to act on a problem they ignored for so long: it represents a meaningful, if modest, policy victory for the polite backlash and its arguments for numbers reduction.

Conversations among thought leaders, however, have so far been largely limited to the temporary resident stream. It will be a measure of the experts’ and the government’s determination to correct course once they start considering cuts to the permanent resident stream, currently set at roughly 1.5 million newcomers by 2026. This is one case where public opinion is ahead of them, since the polling data indicates that most Canadians also want these targets to be scaled back as well. In any event, it is important to understand the deeply entrenched nature of the status quo that prompted this polite backlash, for even Miller’s moderate reforms have invited a backlash of its own from the powerful interests whose income has been threatened by the announced cuts.

The outcry is loudest from higher-education institutions, especially in Ontario, the largest province and epicentre of the crisis. These institutions stand to lose the most as they have relied excessively on international tuitions to compensate for their chronically underfunded budgets. This in turn is the fault of the Tory provincial government of Doug Ford, which carried out the budget cuts and had been aware of this over-reliance on foreign students but nonetheless persisted in letting it fester. It also maintained a lax approach to the growth of dubious for-profit “strip mall colleges”, which attracted large shares of international students. Ford’s government, therefore, shares responsibility with Trudeau’s for the severity of the problem, with parties of the Right and the Left found equally complicit.

Meanwhile, the Century Initiative, an influential business-linked group that advocates for immigration maximalism, issued an anodyne statement on the cuts, appearing to assent to them but nonetheless arguing for the 1.5 million permanent resident targets to be retained — even though these are precisely the numbers that must be cut if Ottawa is serious about easing affordability. What is likely to follow is a protracted debate between two segments of expert opinion on the future of immigration, one that will largely take place within the bounds of elite discourse, confirming the closed nature of political decision-making in Canada. As John Ibbitson put it in his account of the country’s “Laurentian elite”: “On all of the great issues of the day, this Laurentian elite debated among themselves… But much of the debate was held behind closed doors: in faculty clubs, the hallways of legislatures, in dining rooms in [tony neighbourhoods like] Toronto’s Annex, Ottawa’s Glebe, Montreal’s Outremont.”

But the progress of this debate still begs the question: what happened to Canada’s populists, who ought to be challenging the elite conversation from outside the system? For some reason, they have counted themselves out of the immigration issue. Federal Tory leader Pierre Poilievre is a case in point: widely described as populist in style and outlook, he is Trudeau’s arch-foe. But he has avoided criticising the government’s immigration targets in any substantive way (a few recent vague comments about matching immigration numbers to housing construction notwithstanding). Even more strangely, he has sought to gain favour with the international students, meeting with them and trying to turn them against Trudeau, claiming they’d get a better deal under him. This is an incredibly naïve and dangerous proposition that will simply give the students false hope for a path to residency, when in fact such expectations should be lowered, not raised. This poor judgement on Poilievre’s part suggests he won’t be any more serious on immigration than Trudeau’s government.

Further to the Right, the People’s Party has, in the past, been incredibly vocal about the need to restrict immigration. But after failing to re-enter parliament multiple times, its leader Maxime Bernier has faded into obscurity. On the Left, the New Democratic Party, nominally the party of organised labour, has abdicated the issue as well, even though as recently as 2014 it led the charge to limit low-skill immigration in the name of defending working-class jobs and wages. Only in Quebec are restrictionist parties still prevalent, but this has more to do with its idiosyncratic language politics than with material economic factors.

A populist revolt over immigration is therefore unlikely in Canada. But the country might have won something better: the expert-driven push to control immigration, with its emphasis on policy over passion, may prove to be a more effective and rational approach to the challenge than the theatrical (but toothless) populisms of Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wilders and the rest. Canadians should hope that it succeeds in restoring balance to the system eventually, because should the polite backlash fail to do the job, the next backlash will be anything but.

Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.