Maxime Bernier’s performance at the federal leaders debate Monday night may have been unimpressive, and at times badgering, but no doubt some ears pricked up at his assertion that he is the only party leader whose position on immigration stands apart. True enough. He calls for about 150,000 immigrants annually, half the number now admitted.
The People’s Party leader was challenged at the get-go by a debate moderator who raised Bernier’s past comments about “extreme multiculturalism” and his use of the words “ghettos” and “tribes” to describe new Canadians.
Bernier will be lucky to win his own seat in Quebec and his actions in the debate probably didn’t win him a groundswell of supporters anywhere else. But the emphasis on immigration was notable. Slashing immigration in half, which could have detrimental impacts on the economy and growth of the country, would represent a huge number of people refused entry to Canada. But it’s not really about the numbers. It was the underlying message. Bernier was signaling to potential supporters that immigration is generally undesirable, with all the attendant impulses that message is intended to convey.
Hours before the debate, an Angus Reid Institute poll indicated that Canadians are split on the issue – and leaning in the direction of less immigration and tougher treatment for asylum-seekers. Forty percent of respondents said Canada takes in too many refugees, while 13% said we accept too few.
Bernier may not be the best messenger for the anti-immigration idea, but it is clear that there is a constituency in Canada for a politics that is exclusionary and plays on discriminatory tropes. All the main political parties are admirably standing firm against this impulse, for now. But it is worth keeping a close eye on this trend and reminding ourselves regularly that Canada is not immune from xenophobia.