Is Canadians' support for taking in Syrian refugees increasing?

A new poll suggests that more Canadians support the federal government's plan to bring in refugees than oppose it, but this may not show a shift in public opinion. Éric Grenier explains.

New Forum Research poll suggests plurality of Canadians in favour of government refugee plan

Young Syrian refugees gather around Immigration Minister John McCallum, second from left, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Health Minister Jane Philpott, right, as they tour the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan on Nov. 29. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

A new poll suggests that a plurality of Canadians now support the government's plan to resettle thousands of refugees in Canada, a marked contrast from the more mitigated support polls were recording on this question in the wake of the Paris attacks

But whether this means that Canadians have warmed up to the idea of resettling 25,000 Syrians by the end of February 2016 remains something of an open question.

The poll by Forum Research, conducted for City News, found that 48 per cent of respondents supported "the government's plan to bring thousands of refugees to Canada in the next few months." Another 44 per cent were opposed.

Support for the plan was highest among Liberals (68 per cent) and New Democrats (59 per cent), while opposition was highest among Conservatives (75 per cent).

This narrow plurality in favour of refugee resettlement in Canada is a shift from where the polls stood less than a month ago.

The last time Forum Research asked about refugees, in a poll conducted Nov. 17, it found that 51 per cent disapproved of "the government's plan to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada." Just 41 per cent approved.

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On the face of it, this might suggest that about seven per cent of Canadians have changed their minds on the issue.

But a comparison between the two polls may be a matter of apples and oranges — and it has a lot to do with the questions.

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One important difference between the two polls is related to the wording of the questions, with the latest survey not mentioning a specific number of refugees or from where the refugees will be coming. This might have an impact on how respondents answer.

More significant may be the difference between the focus of the two polls. While the latest poll by Forum dealt entirely with the issue of refugees (including some questions on whether Canadians were ready to support refugees themselves), the poll of Nov. 17 was preceded by questions related to the bombing mission against ISIS in the Middle East, the threat posed to Canada by ISIS, and anti-terrorism legislation.

That these questions came before the one on refugees may have linked the idea of terrorism and ISIS to the refugee issue, heightening concerns about security. This may have had the effect of dampening support for refugee resettlement in Canada.

It is possible that the order of the questionnaire did not have a major impact on the Nov. 17 poll by Forum Research. A poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute on Nov. 16, for instance, found almost identical results to Forum's poll on the refugee issue (41 per cent in support, 54 per cent opposed), without any questions related to terrorism being included in the survey.

Nevertheless, these are factors that should be taken into consideration when looking at the shift in public opinion recorded in the two polls by Forum — though it should be noted that Forum itself did not make such a comparison in the analysis of its latest poll. It cannot be said without an asterisk that Canadians are becoming more welcoming to the idea of Syrian refugee resettlement in Canada, at least until more polls emerge with a similar trend line. 

What the latest poll does show is that respondents remain divided on the issue. But it also suggests that, unlike earlier polls, opposition to Syrian refugees coming to Canada may in fact be a minority opinion.

The poll by Forum Research was conducted for City News between Dec. 6 and 8, 2015, interviewing 1,369 Canadians via interactive voice response. The margin of error associated with the survey is +/- three per cent, 19 times out of 20.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.