In response to the recent conflict in Ukraine, the Canadian government has announced new measures to ease the entry of people impacted by the war. Polling data shows that most Canadians remain supportive of immigration. Nevertheless, changes in the broader socio-political landscape have the potential to sway these opinions in different directions at different points in time. For example, in 2019, “sixty-three per cent of respondents to a Leger poll said the government should prioritize limiting immigration levels because the country might be reaching a limit in its ability to integrate them.” More recently, a report by Statista that tracked Canadians attitudes towards immigration found that “the number of Canadian adults who think immigration levels are too high has increased over the last two decades, rising from 33 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2018. However, it appears to be decreasing since 2019. Over this period the number of Canadians who believe immigration levels are about right shrunk from 48 percent to 34 percent.” In 2020, in response to the pandemic when borders were closed, views became hardened against letting more people into the country. Nevertheless, as the restrictions are easing and life is returning back to normal, a more recent poll found once again that majority of people hold favorable views on immigration. In short, despite being generally favorable of immigration, Canadians are not immune to the impact of the broader socio-political context on their views.
Apart from the general public however, there is a radical right movement in Canada that has been consistent in recent years in their opposition to the issue of immigration. Before discussing these views in detail, I would like to clarify what I mean by radical right and how it manifests itself in the Canadian society. By using the term radical right, I am referring to individuals, groups or movements who are against the current status quo and align themselves to the right-wing side of the political spectrum. This is different than individuals who are merely conservative but not anti-status quo and are willing to work within the existing political system.
Despite this distinction between radical and mainstream right, the radical right in Canada is not a coherent nor united entity. In my research, I found four main strands within this movement: a neo-Nazi/ white supremacist strand that is focused on racial superiority; an ideological strand that uses the language of ideas instead of race to position itself against the ideologies of Globalism, Feminism, Communism and Islamism; a very specific anti-Islam strand that is unapologetically vocal in its opposition to Islam and Muslims; and finally a strand that includes people of color who agree with some ideological components of radical right ranging from anti-government views to superiority of western values over other cultures. Their presence is then used by the radical right in Canada to portray themselves as not racist. In short, this milieu is fragmented and divided, not all white, and the same anti-authority sentiment that makes them anti-status quo also makes it difficult for them to agree with each other regarding their goals.
Nevertheless, one common theme that I found is the opposition of all these strands within the movement to the current immigration policies of Canada. While polling data tells us the general mood of the society, it does not always provide enough details regarding the reasons provided by those who oppose immigration. Hence, as part of my research, I conducted qualitative interviews of individuals within the radical right in Canada. Here, I share four different sentiments that were repeated by multiple participants. The goal is not to justify these views, but rather present them as an avenue for further analysis to determine what causes anti-immigrant sentiment in Canada.
My very first interview was with a member of the Proud Boys who used the pseudonym Jurgen. He qualified his views to me by mentioning that he is married to an immigrant from Europe, and then continued:
I don’t agree with mass immigration and I think it should be regulated but you know, it’s not, I don’t really, I think people should go through the process, but I am not against it. My brother-in-law is Mexican, my cousin is married to a Palestinian, I am married to an Irish girl, so I mean to be against immigration would be ridiculous. We are a country founded on immigration. It’s just whether people are coming in for the right reasons and what benefits they are bringing to us. Because eventually the money is going to run out, we can only help so many people out without helping ourselves first, right. As long as its sustainable I am ok with it. And as long as people are properly vetted before they come into our country that’s fine because citizenship is a privilege, it’s not a right. I mean it’s a birth right for me but for me to go to another country, I would have to first pass the qualifications. I can’t just demand it. If you fit the qualifications, and you can contribute to our society, then there is no reason why you can’t be here. But we need to know who is coming in and whether they are coming in for the right reasons or not. We do have the largest unmanned border in the world and we can’t, our allies are the US, and we can’t become a problem for them, so I mean our immigration is important to them as well as to us.
While Jurgen was white, similar sentiments regarding what was often termed as “mass immigration” were echoed by another participant, Leeloo, who herself was a person of color and an immigrant from the Caribbean:
For Canada, it has been the immigration thing. Not anti-immigration, of course, I’m an immigrant myself but it should—first of all, people should not be walking across the border and that being an okay thing to do. In any country, that’s problematic. And then mass immigration…after what happened in Europe, with the—it was Ghaddafi who said, “If you remove me, I’m the only thing stopping scores of, like, thousands of people flowing into Europe,” and even ISIS said, “We’re going to infiltrate those groups, going into Europe, going into the world.” So why isn’t the government doing the proper thing and being a gatekeeper, rather than flinging the gates open and exposing everyone to problems, you know? When white people (who are) in charge, let’s call it that, say we want less immigration, they don’t say we want no immigration, they say we want less. I agree. Our society will change and it’s, you know, our parents came here because they liked what they were joining and why do we want that to change, you know. We don’t want it to change. I want Canadian values to be the primary reason people come here.
In both these comments, one can hear themes related to a fear of immigrants not being properly vetted – seen as a security concern – or not adhering to Canadian values. Similar sentiments were echoed by some other participants as well.
These views contrasted with those individuals who described themselves as white nationalists. One such individual was Paul Fromm who is often in the media because of his radical views, and he voided his confidentiality while talking to me. He viewed immigrants as a clear demographic threat to what he considered was the European heritage of Canada:
A nationalist wants to look out for its own people, I want Canada to remain essentially what it was, European. The European people of various backgrounds built and develop this country, yes there were native people here, and they are part of the equation too. And they should be considered and so on. The immigration pattern that began in 1965 if not halted, like tomorrow…by 2050 or probably a bit before, people of European origin will be a minority in Canada. And there would be profound cultural results and political results.
Comparing these views to the first two views, Frum’s opposition is not just related to security concerns anymore. Rather, he is clearly and unapologetically describing immigrants a demographic threat to the white European majority. Moreover, while in all these sentiments presented above, it is not explicitly stated, one can deduce that the fear of immigrants is more specifically related to a fear of immigrants who are not white. It is unlikely that white immigrants would be considered a demographic or security threat in the same way as immigrants from non-white backgrounds.
Finally, there were some individuals who had a more personal grievance against immigrants due to their life experiences. One of such participants was S who had difficulty finding a job in adolescence, and even though he had a criminal record, he thought it had more to do with immigration. When I asked him when his views in support of radical right started to develop, he answered:
I was leaving high school, when certain people were getting advantages over me. At that time, the newly landed immigrants, which were largely Pakistanis, Sikhs, and Tamil…they obstructed my ability to get a job. One guy says you know, you’re perfect for the job but according to government regulations, we can’t hire you…Because I was not a minority. And I’m thinking what are you talking about? There’s more of us white folk here right now, but like why, what do they call that…affirmative action.
The thing that I found surprising was that he did find a job eventually where he was hired by a minority manager at a gas station, and while he was thankful to that person and liked him on an individual level, his opposition to immigrants continued.
While the result of all these sentiments is similar i.e., an opposition to immigration, the reasons for the opposition were different at the individual level. Understanding this nuance could be the first step to reach proper policy prescriptions regarding lowering the opposition or misconceptions about the immigration policies and processes in Canada.
One might question that since the impact of such negative attitudes is often the same on immigrants, why is this nuance important? First, having a clear messaging from the government regarding its immigration policies and different pathways to settlement in Canada can assuage some fears for those who are only concerned with security issues. At the moment, often these views are stemming from an improper understanding of what is often termed as “open borders,” which is not something that Canada has in place. Moreover, clearly portraying immigration as part of economic growth, as opposed to threat to economic livelihoods of people can also help those whose anger is rooted in socio-economic issues, and not a more racial or cultural anger towards immigrants. For example, someone who might view immigrants as an economic competition while being disillusioned with their government might be very different from someone who is inherently opposed to members of another culture or religion. In one case, some rehabilitation or compromise could be possible (e.g., government focusing on the economy of the country in general), but in other cases, a dialogue might not be enough to assuage the opposition. Finally, more research is needed regarding biases related to different immigrant and refugee groups in the Canadian society at large. There are often indications that certain groups face more opposition than others, making it clear that opposition to immigration is often an opposition to certain immigrants.
During my field research of 3 years, there were some individuals who left the radical right milieu in Canada as they were exposed to more information about what a radical group or a movement stood for, and how it was not relevant to their individual grievances. Similar experiences have been shared by other individuals within the radical right movement who have gone public as they left these entities, and now work in the field of counter-radicalization. This is a positive indication that individuals do change their views over time with more information, and it also allows government and policy makers to take preventative steps to prevent more extreme radicalization of individuals whose grievances could be tackled early on. While this is a time-consuming endeavor, it is certainly worthwhile in the long run for a country where immigration is such an important part of its social fabric.