Vote Compass: Green, NDP supporters most open to accepting more refugees

Canadian attitudes to admitting more refugees largely break down along party lines, with those voters identifying as Green and NDP supporters most open to the idea, according to the latest results from Vote Compass.

Campaign galvanized by photo of three-year-old Syrian boy on Turkish beach

The plight of Syrian refugees has became a surprise issue in the Canadian election campaign, but Vote Compass respondents are divided on the wisdom of accepting more refugees. (Paul Hanna/Reuters)

Canadian attitudes to admitting more refugees largely break down along party lines, with those voters identifying as Green and NDP supporters most open to the idea, according to the latest results from Vote Compass, CBC's online voter engagement survey.

The mass migration of people from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa in recent months has turned international attention to the plight of refugees and become a sleeper issue in the Canadian election campaign.

Vote Compass asked respondents to consider if Canada should take on additional refugees from the Syrian civil war specifically, and whether doing so would endanger this country's security.

When asked to consider the statement "Canada should reduce barriers to entry for refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria," 50 per cent of respondents overall agree, while 35 per cent disagree.

When the question is broken down along party lines, 67 per cent of Green Party voters, 63 per cent of NDP supporters and 61 per cent of Liberal supporters agree.

However, 60 per cent of respondents who identify as Conservative supporters disagree that Canada should do more to admit Syrian refugees.

The results for both questions are based on 5,389 respondents who participated in Vote Compass between Aug. 29 and Sept. 12.

National security

When asked to consider the statement "Canada could admit more refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria without jeopardizing its national security," the overall difference is even greater, with 59 per cent of Vote Compass respondents agreeing and 30 per cent disagreeing.

Within these numbers, 72 per cent of NDP supporters, 71 per cent of Liberal supporters and 68 per cent of Green backers agree, while 53 per cent of Conservative supporters disagree.

Laura Madokoro, a professor in the department of history and classical studies at McGill University with an expertise in refugee history, says there's always some reluctance to encourage the movement of people across national borders.

"We saw the same kinds of reservations initially with the Hungarian refugees [in 1956], the Czech refugees in '68," she says.

While public opinion can change with the emergence of personal anecdotes from refugees, or a particularly striking photograph, Madokoro says the issue of admitting more Syria refugees is complicated by the threat of the jihadist group ISIS, which has openly encouraged adherents to launch attacks in Western countries.

"The very pointed discussion around refugees and terrorists is going to detract from any kind of positive sentiment towards resettling refugees," says Madokoro.

Politically difficult

The issue of Syrian refugees seems to polarize Canadians, but trying to turn it into political advantage will be difficult for the parties, says Madokoro.

The current discussion of Syrian refugees was galvanized by a photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach on Sept. 2 after a boat carrying his family from Syria to the Greek island of Kos capsized.

In the days immediately after, the Liberals and NDP urged the Canadian government to accept more Syrian refugees, while Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was initially reluctant, arguing that continuing airstrikes against the Islamic State was key to improving the life of Syrians in the long run.

Kyle Matthews, the senior deputy director for the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, notes that when the issue of helping Syrian civilians has come up in the past — mainly through military intervention — the Liberals and NDP have been resistant.

"I've been studying the issue of stopping ISIS and stopping the civil war in Syria for four years, and it's traditionally been the left that's been opposed to doing anything," Matthews says.

"But when it comes to refugees of the war, the left wakes up and wants to do something."

Competition with numbers

The Liberals and the NDP have been very vocal about the need to accept more refugees, but they "haven't been very clear about what their humanitarian and refugee policy writ large looks like," says Madokoro.

The Liberals and the NDP have been very vocal about the need to accept more refugees, but they "haven't been very clear about what their humanitarian and refugee policy writ large looks like," says Laura Madokoro, an expert on refugee history at McGill University. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)

"We've seen the competition with numbers and who would do more numerically [to aid refugees], which is a terrible way to measure humanitarian assistance, because there are so many ways that a country can assist."

That said, the Vote Compass survey suggests there is also confusion among self-identified Conservative voters about the right course of action.

Responding to the statement that admitting more refugees will not affect national security, Conservative voters were split: 28 per cent strongly disagree, 25 per cent somewhat disagree and 26 per cent somewhat agree.

The relative size of these conflicting sentiments could pose a challenge for the Conservative Party, says Clifton van der Linden, founder and director of Vox Pop Labs, which created Vote Compass.

"It puts the Conservatives in a difficult position in terms of making policy that's going to placate their base," he says.

"Whichever way the party positions itself [on this issue], a significant share of its voters or prospective voters are going to be put off by that position."

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Developed by a team of social and statistical scientists from Vox Pop Labs, Vote Compass is a civic engagement application offered in Canada exclusively by CBC News. The above findings are based on 5,389 respondents who participated in Vote Compass between Aug. 29 and Sept. 12.

Unlike opinion polls, respondents to Vote Compass are not randomly selected. Similar to opinion polls, however, the data are a non-random sample from the population and have been weighted in order to approximate a representative sample. Vote Compass data have been weighted by geography, gender, age, educational attainment, occupation, religion, religiosity and civic engagement to ensure the sample's composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to census data and other population estimates.

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