Immigration brings out the good in (almost) everyone during federal leaders’ debate

Stephen Smith
Published: October 7, 2019

The leaders of Canada’s five top political parties defended the importance of immigration this week in one of the last debates prior to the federal election on October 21. 

The discussion on immigration lasted only minutes and, to the surprise of many, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau emerged wholly unscathed, with his government’s record unquestioned.

By virtue of the debate’s format, the immigration hot seat was occupied instead by Maxime Bernier, leader of Canada’s fledgeling far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC).

The PPC is the only outlier on immigration among Canada’s main federal parties. While the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democratic Party (NDP), Green Party and the Bloc Quebecois are all pledging support for immigration and a range of policies to this end, Bernier’s party wants to reduce it by roughly 55 per cent, from the current level of 331,000 newcomers in 2019 to 150,000.

Bernier maintains his party’s policies are not anti-immigrant and points to the value of economic immigration, but the PPC’s platform is laced with divisive references to "mass immigration" and its impact on Canada’s “cultural character” and the “excessive financial burdens” refugees “put on the shoulders of Canadians.” 

The likelihood of Bernier becoming Canada’s next prime minister is beyond remote, with the latest polls giving the PPC roughly 3 per cent of decided and leaning voters. The PPC, however, was found to be polling high enough in a handful of ridings to earn Bernier a place in the debate despite his controversial policies.  

'We're all immigrants'

Bernier used his time Monday night to tout himself as the only leader “who wants to have a discussion about the level of immigration” and, much like the current government in his home province of Quebec, he said he wanted to reduce immigration to ensure “these people participate in our society.” Bernier said he wanted to avoid the situation in European countries “where they have huge difficulty to integrate immigrants.”

A fact check conducted by CTV later revealed Bernier’s claims on integration to be "mostly incorrect."

When the floor was opened to debate with Bernier, all five of his opponents challenged his views.

Trudeau accused Bernier of peddling “fear of the other,” which he said “has become easy currency for politicians who do want to strike up uncertainty in people’s hearts and lift anxieties and try to get these people to vote against things.”

“Unfortunately, Mr Bernier on this stage is playing that role of trying to make people more fearful about the migrations that are happening in the world and the opportunities around globalization and our ability to continue to redefine every single day what it is to be Canadian, what it means to be Canadian. And, yes, it will evolve.”

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh and the first non-white to lead a major Canadian federal party, questioned Bernier’s leadership, saying a leader “is not someone who tries to divide people or to pit people against each other.”

“A true leader is someone who tries to find bridges, bringing people together. That’s what a leader does,” Singh said. “And a leader works for people who need help … what you’re saying is not helpful.”

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said Bernier “fails to understand that you can absolutely be proud of Canada’s history, you can be proud of our identity, you can be proud of the things we’ve done and accomplished in the world, while at the same time welcoming people from all around the world.” 

“That is something that has made Canada strong,” Scheer said. “People come to Canada because of our freedom — our freedom to do what we want … to believe what we want, and freedom of speech.”

Scheer pointed to his time together in government with Bernier, who served alongside Scheer as a Conservative Member of Parliament and ran against him for the party’s leadership in 2017 before quitting to form the PPC. 

“You have changed from someone who used to believe in an immigration system that was fair, orderly and compassionate and now you are making policy based on trying to get likes and retweets from the darkest parts of Twitter,” Scheer said. 

Describing Bernier’s rhetoric as “appalling” and “horrific,” Green Party leader Elizabeth May said supporting immigration was an economic necessity and highlighted the fact Green parties in both Europe and Canada “are the only party that would grow immigration.”

Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois, was not unsympathetic to the desire to ensure that immigrants can “share our language” and “some of our values.”

He said achieving this is possible if the required resources are made available, but cautioned “you do not do it by saying or sending the message that they are not welcome.”

“Did anybody tell you that your ancestors were immigrants also,” Blanchet said. “We are all immigrants.”

Immigration 'not going to be an issue' with most voters

In an interview with Global News after the debate, Craig Damian Smith, director of the Global Migration Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy in Toronto, said the fact immigration was not more of a focus in Monday’s debate suggested there’s little political capital to be gained from the topic.

“It’s a good thing, or at least it’s a good sign, that they decided to steer the debate away from [immigration] because it means that that’s not going to be an issue that Canadians are going to vote on,” Smith said. 

This view echoed an Ipsos poll conducted last month that found that only 14 per cent of Canadians felt immigration was a top issue in the federal election.

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