On immigration, Scheer is trying to please two different audiences at once

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's speech this week on immigration suggested a man trying to walk a tightrope between two constituencies: Conservative supporters and Canadians at large.

Polling shows that Conservative supporters are more likely to say that Canada takes too many immigrants

Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer announces his immigration policy at an event hall in Toronto, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. (Cole Burston/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Andrew Scheer's immigration speech on Tuesday night rested its arguments on a debatable premise.

"With each passing day," he said, "Justin Trudeau and the Liberals undermine" Canada's "proud legacy" of immigration. "They have managed," Scheer said, "to undermine the long-standing consensus that immigration is indeed a positive thing for this country."

Public polling on this topic is mixed, but a recent survey by Environics suggested that general views on immigration have changed little over the last eight years. In 2011, 47 per cent of respondents said immigration made Canada a better place, while 16 per cent said it made Canada a worse place. In 2019, those numbers were 44 per cent and 15 per cent.

In 2011, 58 per cent disagreed with the statement that immigration levels were "too high." In 2019, 59 per cent disagreed.

There's a crucial partisan division in the 2019 numbers, however. On the question of whether immigration levels were too high, 75 per cent of Liberal voters and 70 per cent of NDP supporters disagreed. Just 44 per cent of Conservative voters disagreed.

It's that breakdown of consensus that leaves Andrew Scheer trying to address two different audiences — to reassure the wide swath of voters who are basically happy with immigration, while also speaking to the sceptics who support his party.

The resulting tension was barely concealed in Scheer's remarks on Tuesday.

How many is too many?

He expounded on the contributions that successive waves of immigrants have made to this country and explained the economic imperative for continued immigration. He promised that, if he becomes prime minister, his government would move to increase private sponsorship of refugees.

But Scheer made a point of declining to say exactly how many immigrants Canada would accept under a new Conservative government. He described the whole topic of setting a number as "a little bit of a red herring." That seemed to be an excuse to avoid being pinned down.

Those calling for the current levels to be cut, he said, are making "rash promises." But those who advocate for "high targets" are also doing so for political ends, he argued.

Scheer, apparently, would arrive at some kind of objectively correct number. But not unless or until he becomes prime minister. And even then, he said, "that number may change every year."

The Conservative leader was more categorical in condemning racism and intolerance.

"I'd like to make something absolutely crystal clear," he said. "There is absolutely no room in a peaceful and free country like Canada for intolerance, racism and extremism of any kind. And the Conservative Party of Canada will always make that absolutely clear."

Polishing the party's immigration image

That Scheer felt he needed to say so might be viewed as evidence of an image problem. If, for instance, he had not appeared at a protest attended by members of the so-called 'yellow vest' movement, and if his party hadn't had to retract an attack ad about asylum-seekers that featured an image of a black man crossing into Canada, he might not have felt it necessary to clarify his position on racism.

But Scheer also condemned the Liberals for too harshly condemning their critics. "We should be able to have an immigration debate in this country without the government calling people who criticize its failure racists and bigots," Scheer said.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen did once describe his Ontario counterpart's language on the issue of irregular immigration as "not Canadian." And Trudeau has challenged Scheer to condemn white supremacists.

But in the one case where Trudeau directly accused someone of racism, he was speaking to a woman in Quebec who had referred to "your illegal immigrants" and "Québécois de souche" — an inflammatory phrase that refers to the original descendants of French colonists. Scheer criticized Trudeau's comments at the time.

On Tuesday night, Scheer dwelled on the issue of irregular migration along Canada's southern border, just as his party has over the last two years. "The numbers are almost hard to believe," he said of the more than 40,000 people who have come to Canada in that time.

Choosing to present that situation as a pressing problem might strike some as understandable. But it's also a political choice — one that no doubt speaks to those who think Canada is currently accepting too many immigrants.

In that respect, Scheer's speech was most interesting for what he did not mention: the UN's global compact on migration.

Last December, Scheer publicly and prominently condemned the Trudeau government's decision to sign the non-binding statement of principles that's meant to frame an international approach to the emerging challenge of migration. Canada joined 151 other countries in ratifying the compact.

International opposition to the initiative was later traced to far-right activists. In opposing the pact, Scheer's Conservatives found themselves on the same side with Donald Trump's administration and several nationalist parties in Europe. Scheer said the compact was a threat to Canada's national sovereignty. "It gives influence over Canada's immigration system to foreign entities," he claimed.

Chris Alexander, the former Conservative immigration minister, was moved to say that Scheer's assessment was "factually incorrect."

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The Conservative party's website still features a condemnation of the compact and an invitation for Canadians to add their names to an online petition opposing it.

But six months after saying he'd pull Canada out of the compact, Scheer gave a 3,000-word speech about immigration without mentioning it once.

Maybe Scheer is ready to forget what he said in December. But if he's still opposed to the compact, it's an odd omission.

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Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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