The latest results of the Citizenship and Immigration tracking survey — conducted every year since 1996 to gauge public opinion on immigration — suggest that national attitudes towards both the number and the value of Canadian immigrants are shifting.
The 2012 survey, obtained under access to information laws, found the number of Canadian respondents who said they felt immigration was having a positive effect on the economy was 56 per cent — a decline of 10 percentage points from the 2010 survey.
The number of respondents who said they believe immigration has a positive impact on Canadian culture came in at 40 per cent, a decline of between 16 to 18 per cent from 2010 levels.
"Findings from the 2012 tracking study suggest that attitudes towards immigration levels and the impact of immigration are somewhat tightening up," says an analysis of the results done by the department.
The survey itself was carried out in two separate sessions in February by a company called Corporate Research Associates.
The first session involved 1,500 respondents and carried a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The second session, with 1,200 people, is considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
On Wednesday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is set to release targets for the number of immigrants Canada will accept next year. Kenney said he takes the results of the government's internal tracking polls seriously.
"I keep a very close eye on public opinion with respect to immigration," Kenney said in an interview. "We want to avoid the disconnect between popular opinion and policy on immigration that we've seen in Western Europe."
Support for current immigration levels has hovered around 50 per cent since 2004, the survey suggests. When respondents weren't aware of the actual number of immigrants being allowed into the country, they felt the levels were about right.
Once informed of the government's target figures, however, opinions changed.
"When informed of the actual number of immigrants to Canada, between nine per cent and 14 per cent of Canadians shift from the 'right amount' to 'too many,'" the survey found.
Canada's annual target number for new immigrants has been set at 250,000 for the last few years and is unlikely to change much, despite pressure from labour groups.
During public consultations on immigration levels, for instance, the St. John's Board of Trade begged for more people to be let in.
"The federal government must act on this most grave challenge to economic growth and prosperity," the board's submission said.
"We would encourage government to place employer needs at the centre of decision making about immigration policy and levels. Labour shortages in Newfoundland and Labrador are unique, acute and immediate."
A recent analysis by TD Bank suggested that just to offset the impact of an aging population, Canada's annual immigration numbers need to rise to at least 350,000 after 2016.
But there are other issues at play, the bank said.
"The more pressing concern is the poor economic outcomes of newcomers to Canada," the analysis said.
"Much effort has been made by the federal and provincial governments to improve this situation and until these reforms bear fruit, it is likely counterproductive to raise the current 250,000 target."
It's the economic outcomes that partially drive public opinion about the value of immigration to the economy, Kenney said.
"The rate of unemployment and underemployment amongst immigrants is too high," he said.
"We're bringing a lot of newcomers here only to face unemployment or underemployment in an economy with skills shortages which doesn't make much sense."
Since 2008, the Conservatives have carried out major reforms to immigration policy, eradicating backlogs, overhauling the federal skilled worker program and changing the refugee system, among others.
This has been accompanied by a public campaign against those the government feels are abusing the system via human smuggling, crooked consultants or marriage fraud.
Kenney said it's about gradually repairing a broken system.
"Our efforts to reinforce the integrity of the immigration system will, in the long run, increase public support for legal immigration and well-managed refugee protection," Kenney said.
But critics have said the consequences of that campaign are a backlash against immigration.
"Canada's ability to successfully maintain and increase immigration levels depends in part on the level of public support. The federal government, in turn, plays an important leadership role in ensuring that Canadians support the immigration and refugee resettlement programs," said a submission by Canadian Council on Refugees to the consultations on immigration levels.
"The government must promote positive newcomer contributions and avoid discourse that feeds misconceptions and prejudice against immigrants and refugees."
The survey analysis suggested the government needs to continue marketing efforts.
"Communications on immigration should continue to accentuate the positive impact of immigration on the economy and Canada's labour market needs vis-a-vis the need for skilled immigrants," it said.
"...Notwithstanding the fact that perceptions expressed in this survey may not be based on concrete knowledge or experience, they will continue to drive public acceptance of immigrants and immigration policy."