Today is Canada Day, Canada's equivalent of the 4th of July. Coincidentally, the New York Times just dropped a big story on a major issue with Canada welcoming in Syrian refugees. The problem? Too many Canadians want to accept Syrian refugees, and the government can't provide enough to satisfy demand:
Across Canada, ordinary citizens, distressed by news reports of drowning children and the shunning of desperate migrants, are intervening in one of the world's most pressing problems. Their country allows them a rare power and responsibility: They can band together in small groups and personally resettle — essentially adopt — a refugee family. In Toronto alone, hockey moms, dog-walking friends, book club members, poker buddies and lawyers have formed circles to take in Syrian families. The Canadian government says sponsors officially number in the thousands, but the groups have many more extended members. ...
"I can't provide refugees fast enough for all the Canadians who want to sponsor them," John McCallum, the country's immigration minister, said in an interview.
This kind of inclusiveness increasingly feels anomalous for the developed world — and not just because of Donald Trump and Brexit. In countries around Europe, anti-Muslim prejudice has swelled since the 2015 refugee crisis. There, far-right parties, united mostly by their strong appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment, have surged in popularity.
What this points to, then, is something that some scholars have termed "Canadian exceptionalism": The country is just a lot more welcoming to immigrants and minorities than virtually every country in the Western world. While Canada certainly has problems with xenophobia and discrimination, it is less afflicted by these ills than its peers in the West. Here's why.
In Canada, welcoming immigrants is good politics
The final stages of the Canadian election in October 2015 were suffused with a sort anti-Islam rhetoric. Incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, of the Conservative Party, spent months decrying the wearing of the niqab, a face-covering garment worn by some Muslim women, particularly by immigrants during citizenship ceremonies. The niqab is "rooted in a culture that is anti-women," Harper said. Wearing it when "committing to joining the Canadian family," according to the prime minister, "is not the way we do things."
The comments were widely understood to be a dog whistle for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment: Harper was appealing to Canadians who thought Muslim immigration threatened their culture and values.
And indeed, Harper went up in the polls after these remarks. However, he mostly took votes from the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada's left-wing party, meaning that Harper's Muslim baiting ironically may well have helped Justin Trudeau's center-left Liberal Party defeat him. So Harper's Islamophobic tack — which, incidentally, was far milder than what you see in the US and Europe nowadays — ended up failing.
And since Trudeau's victory, Harper's politics of division has faded away. While Harper's office had stymied the resettlement of Syrian refugees, Trudeau has already exceeded his campaign promise to admit 25,000 of them into the country. According to a March immigration proposal, Trudeau aims to bring in at least 12,000 more Syrians by the end of the year.
Trudeau is doing all this without facing a major nativist backlash. In fact, support for the Liberals has skyrocketed since his election in October and remained high, as you can see in the chart below (Liberals in red, Conservatives in blue, NDP in orange):
So we're having a bit of a unique moment. While most of the Western world is seeing a surge in nativism and Islamophobia, the Canadian government has become more and more open to minority groups and immigration.
Canada's government pushed tolerance as public policy
"The only real outlier [to the nativist trend] is Canada," Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies nativism and far-right politics in Europe, tells me. He continues:
[Trudeau] has handled, so far, the Syrian refugee crisis incredibly well, having taken in 25,000 Syrian refugees against the majority will. Initially, he wasn't supported by the majority — but when they finally arrived, a majority of Canadians did support it. That's one of the few encouraging lessons that we have seen over the last several years: that if you have a positive campaign, which is supported by a large portion of the media, that you can actually swing public opinion in a positive direction.
Canada is genuinely different from other Western countries in terms of its attitude toward immigrants. It's far more welcoming than basically everywhere else.
"Compared to the citizens of other developed immigrant-receiving countries, Canadians are by far the most open to and optimistic about immigration," Irene Bloemraad, a sociologist at UC Berkeley and its chair of Canadian studies, wrote in a 2012 study published by the Migration Policy Institute.
"In one comparative poll, only 27 percent of those surveyed in Canada agreed that immigration represented more of a problem than an opportunity. In the country that came closest to Canadian opinion, France, the perception of immigration as a problem was significantly higher, at 42 percent."
Why? According to Bloemraad, the Canadian government has spent decades attempting to foster tolerance and acceptance as core national values, through policies aimed at integrating immigrants and minority groups without stripping them of their group identity.
For example, Canada emphasized permanent resettlement and citizenship in its immigration policy, rather than the sort of guest worker policies you've often seen in the US and Europe.
This actually worked in reshaping the values of citizens, making them more tolerant. Bloemraad explains:
A key aspect of the "Canadian model" lies in the view that immigration helps with nation building. Bolstered by the federal government, this view goes beyond political and intellectual elites to be embraced by a significant proportion of ordinary Canadians.
Indeed, one recent paper found that, in Canada, those who expressed more patriotism were also more likely to support immigration and multiculturalism. In the United States this correlation went in the opposite direction: those expressing greater patriotism were more likely to express anti-immigrant attitudes.
Trudeau's inclusionary politics have worked, then, because he's operating in a country that has long prioritized tolerance as a matter of public policy.
Given that Americans and Europeans are currently reaping the whirlwind of not mimicking this approach, they might want to start taking notes.
Oh, and happy Canada Day!