Just as in the United States, in Canada too there is a real divide in public opinion and support of all things immigration, multiculturalism and diversity.
Studies by Professors Erin Tolley and Randy Besco of the University of Toronto point to a rough rule of thirds. About one third of Canadians hold clearly negative views. They want less immigration and think less should be done for minorities. But the other third want more immigrants. They favour diversity and reject policies that target specific groups, such as Muslims. The middle third are “conditional multiculturalists”. They favour more immigration as long as those coming adopt Canadian values. They might favour restrictions on the niqab in citizenship ceremonies, but not in public life. They worry Muslims pose a public threat, but they also think they deserve equal treatment.
So the way in which this issue is framed matters. This third, “undecided” category could swing public opinion one way or the other.
So given all this, what is the way forward?
First, I think that we must open the avenues of conversation. We need to understand and appreciate that people have lost work, lost livelihoods and lifestyles, aspects of their identity and possibly their dignity. Working class voters in the US and the United Kingdom, have already and may further lash out at expressions of what they see as elitism — because they feel not only economically marginalized but also culturally and socially disdained by elites today. So they use the only tool they have — their power to vote. But they do something else: they blame immigrants and refugees, and in particular Muslims.
Second, I think messaging matters. I am a huge believer in evidence and I can cite scientific evidence that supports many aspects of immigration and diversity, but facts alone without strategic messaging are like toast without butter. The messaging to conditional multiculturalists must be a message about shared prosperity. It must be stated and restated that the expansion of civil, human and economic rights is not a finite pie where there are winners and losers. We can all imagine a bigger pie.
Third, we must be relentless in spreading the truth and contesting fake news and lies. When politicians stoke fear by citing that immigrants displace local jobs and suppress wages, we must use the evidence to disprove these falsehoods and demonstrate the opposite. When people fear that refugees create a burden over the long term on society, we must use the evidence to prove that every 1 Euro invested in refugees brings a return of 2 over five years. When people fear that immigrants are a drain on the public purse, we only have to point out that TESLA, Google and EBay, to name a few, were all brainchildren of immigrants. When people fear diversity, we only have to point out that it also brings innovation.
And finally, winning hearts and minds matters. We need to remind ourselves that compassion has a transformative power, especially when that compassion is received by those that we have in some way or another belittled, scorned, ignored, feared or dehumanized.
Ratna Omidvar is a senator representing Ontario. She is a member of the Senate Committee on Human Rights and the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
This piece is based on a speech delivered by Senator Ratna Omidvar on April 26 2017, titled “Us and Them: Difference, Diversity and a World of Difference,” to an audience at the Embassy of Canada to Germany in Berlin. The opportunity to speak was made possible by the Laurier Institution of British Columbia and the CBC.