04/16/2019 17:06 EDT | Updated 04/16/2019 19:33 EDT

Immigration Survey Shows 'Clear Measure Of Racial Discrimination': EKOS Pollster

Attitudes to non-white newcomers are poised to become ballot box issues, a new poll suggests.

Darryl Dyck/CP
A young boy holds a Canadian flag while watching a special Canada Day citizenship ceremony in West Vancouver, B.C., on July 1, 2017.

Immigration and attitudes towards non-white newcomers seeking to build lives in Canada are poised to become ballot box issues this fall, a new poll suggests.

According to numbers released Monday by EKOS Research Associates, about 40 per cent of Canadians feel there are too many immigrants coming to this country. The responses were drawn from a survey with a modest sample size.

The firm's president, Frank Graves, told HuffPost Canada that figure is consistent with what they've seen over several years and actually represents a drop from the mid-'90s, when opposition to immigration was pegged at over 50 per cent.

But the poll also suggested that reluctance to welcome newcomers who are visible minorities is now basically at the same level. And that is something new.

EKOS Research Associates
A screengrab of a poll from EKOS Research Associates.

"It's a pretty clear measure of racial discrimination," Graves said. "A sizeable portion of Canadians are using race as something that would alter their view of whether or not there's too few or too many immigrants coming to the country."

The numbers also point to a "dramatic" gap between Liberal and Conservative supporters on the issue, Graves says.

When asked if there are too few, too many, or the right amount of immigrants coming to Canada who are members of visible minorities, 69 per cent of Conservative supporters chose "too many," compared to 15 per cent of Liberal backers.

In 2013, the same question yielded a less jarring split: 47 per cent of Tory supporters and 34 per cent of Liberals said there were too many visible minorities coming to Canada.

The research suggests Liberals are "losing votes" to Conservatives from Canadians who are less welcoming to visible minorities, Graves said.

EKOS Research Associates
A screengrab of a poll from EKOS Research Associates.

The overall poll, conducted between April 3-11 via interactive voice response, had a sample size of slightly more than 1,000 Canadians. However, the questions on immigration were randomly split, Graves said, and had a sample size of 507. Those results have a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Graves posits the shifts are related to the rise of authoritarian right-wing populism around the world that is more focused on hostility towards outsiders and skepticism of globalization than free markets or smaller government.

Canadians who feel economic despair, that the world is less safe, or that their positions of privilege are threatened by the country's changing demographics feel more liberated to say "let's pull up the drawbridge," Graves says.

"So, it's a different type of outlook and it looks like Conservatives are capturing a lot of that sentiment, that concern, as the Republicans have in the United States."

'Contagion effect from the Trump show'

Graves adds there is likely "some contagion effect from the Trump show" in the U.S., and that respondents may find it "thrilling" to talk about things that once were seen as verboten.

The way the poll was conducted — technology that let respondents answer by punching the keypad on their phone rather than speaking to an operator — is also significant.

"People feel more comfortable expressing those things to a robot," he said.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told HuffPost in a statement that Canada's system doesn't discriminate based on race and attracts the best and brightest from around the world.

The Canadian Press
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen makes an announcement of support for pre-arrival services at the YMCA in Toronto on Jan. 14, 2019.

"These numbers are a wake-up call. They point to worrying trends that some are falling prey to misinformation and fear-mongering, peddled by some politicians and emerging far-right groups," Hussen said. "It is important for Canadians to be able to have healthy debates on immigration, but conservative politicians must be mindful of the effect of their language.

"We must remind ourselves that Canada benefits from immigrants, regardless of background, and that when faced with misinformation, we must fight fear with facts."

HuffPost also reached out to Tory immigration critic Michelle Rempel to respond to the findings.

Veteran Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai told HuffPost he is concerned by the poll.

"Canada is a changing face and we need to accept that," he said. "Look around you and you will see, wherever you are going, the positive impacts of immigration."

Nathan Denette/CP
Deepak Obhrai speaks to the crowd during the opening night of the federal Conservative leadership convention in Toronto on May 26, 2017.

Obhrai was born in Tanzania and immigrated to Canada in 1977. Two decades later, he was elected to represent a Calgary riding as a member of Parliament, a role that he has held for almost 22 years.

Obhrai, who ran for his party's leadership in 2017, was unrattled by the suggestion in the poll that nearly seven out of 10 Tory supporters want fewer people like him to come to Canada.

"I'm a Conservative. Everybody can see what I am and what I've done," he said. "That's absolutely the wrong way to address the issue. The issue should have been: are Canadians comfortable with the immigration coming in?"

Obhrai says negative attitudes toward immigration are a "byproduct" of what he called the Liberal failure to address the "border crisis." Since 2017, more than 41,000 asylum-seekers have crossed into Canada through unofficial points at the Canada-U.S. border.

And while Canada has separate streams and processes for asylum claims and immigration, Obhrai believes the flow of irregular border crossers has contributed to the polarization on the topic.

'This is how the country was built': Tory MP

Liberals are now using their omnibus budget bill to bring about controversial changes that would prevent asylum-seekers from making refugee claims in Canada if they have already done so in the U.S. and certain other countries. Border Security Minister Bill Blair has said the move is about preventing so-called "asylum-shopping."

All politicians of all stripes need to do more to explain the "massive benefits" of immigration and counter misinformation, Obhrai says.

"We have to go out there and educate Canadians... to say this is how the country was built and how the country is going to be built in the future," he said.

With a file from The Canadian Press

Watch: Trudeau defends controversial changes to asylum laws