Canada is the least xenophobic country in the Western world. Here’s why.


Canada is the least xenophobic country in the Western world. Here’s why.


Justin Trudeau


It was a pleasure to celebrate Iftar and break the first Ramadan fast with Muslim members of our caucus last night.



This is just normal politics for Trudeau. A little over 1 million Muslims live in Canada, about 3.2 percent of the population. It’s both good politics and a matter of basic respect to celebrate a major holiday for your country’s largest religious minority. (Though the Muslim population is smaller in the US, percentage-wise, American presidents also generally issue official statements on Ramadan.)

On the other hand, the kind of inclusiveness Trudeau’s video represents increasingly feels anomalous — and not just because of Donald Trump. In countries around Europe, anti-Muslim prejudice has swelled since the 2015 refugee crisis. There, far-right parties, united mostly by their strong appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment, have surged in popularity.

What this points to, then, is something that some scholars have termed « Canadian exceptionalism »: The country is just a lot more welcoming to immigrants and minorities than virtually every country in the Western world.

In Canada, welcoming immigrants is good politics

The final stages of the Canadian election in October 2015 were suffused with a sort anti-Islam rhetoric. Incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, of the Conservative Party, spent months decrying the wearing of the niqab, a face-covering garment for Muslim women, particularly by immigrants during citizenship ceremonies. The niqab is « rooted in a culture that is anti-women, » Harper said. Wearing it when « committing to joining the Canadian family, » according to the prime minister, « is not the way we do things. »

The comments were widely understood to be a dog whistle for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment: Harper was appealing to Canadians who thought Muslim immigration threatened their culture and values.

And indeed, Harper went up in the polls after these remarks. However, he mostly took votes from the NDP, Canada’s left-wing party, meaning that Harper’s Muslim baiting ironically may well have helped Trudeau’s center-left Liberal Party defeat him. So Harper’s Islamophobic tack — which, incidentally, was far milder than what you see in the US and Europe nowadays — ended up failing.

And since Trudeau’s victory, Harper’s politics of division has faded away. While Harper’s office had stymied the resettlement of Syrian refugees, Trudeau has already exceeded his campaign promise to admit 25,000 of them into the country. According to a March immigration proposal, Trudeau aims to bring in at least 12,000 more Syrians by the end of the year.

Trudeau is doing all this without facing a major nativist backlash. In fact, support for the Liberals has skyrocketed since his election in October and remained high, as you can see in the below chart (Liberals in red, Conservatives in blue, NDP in orange):


So we’re having a bit of a unique moment. While most of the Western world is seeing a surge in nativism and Islamophobia, the Canadian government has become more and more open to minority groups and immigration.

Why Canada is different

« The only real outlier [to the nativist trend] is Canada, » Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies nativism and far-right politics in Europe, tells me. He continues:

[Trudeau] has handled, so far, the Syrian refugee crisis incredibly well, having taken in 25,000 Syrian refugees against the majority will. Initially, he wasn’t supported by the majority — but when they finally arrived, a majority of Canadians did support it. That’s one of the few encouraging lessons that we have seen over the last several years: that if you have a positive campaign, which is supported by a large portion of the media, that you can actually swing public opinion in a positive direction.

Why? It’s because Canada is genuinely different from other Western countries in terms of its attitude toward immigrants. It’s far more welcoming than basically everywhere else.

« Compared to the citizens of other developed immigrant-receiving countries, Canadians are by far the most open to and optimistic about immigration, » Irene Bloemraad, a sociologist at UC Berkeley and its chair of Canadian studies, wrote in a 2012 study published by the Migration Policy Institute.

« In one comparative poll, only 27 percent of those surveyed in Canada agreed that immigration represented more of a problem than an opportunity. In the country that came closest to Canadian opinion, France, the perception of immigration as a problem was significantly higher, at 42 percent. »

Why? According to Bloemraad, the Canadian government has spent decades attempting to foster tolerance and acceptance as core national values, through policies aimed at integrating immigrants and minority groups without stripping them of their group identity.

For example, Canada emphasized permanent resettlement and citizenship in its immigration policy, rather than the sort of guest worker policies you’ve often seen in the US and Europe.

This actually worked in reshaping the values of citizens, making them more tolerant. Bloemraad explains:

A key aspect of the « Canadian model » lies in the view that immigration helps with nation building. Bolstered by the federal government, this view goes beyond political and intellectual elites to be embraced by a significant proportion of ordinary Canadians.

Indeed, one recent paper found that, in Canada, those who expressed more patriotism were also more likely to support immigration and multiculturalism. In the United States this correlation went in the opposite direction: those expressing greater patriotism were more likely to express anti-immigrant attitudes.

Trudeau’s inclusionary politics have worked, then, because he’s operating in a country that has long prioritized tolerance as a matter of public policy.

Given that Americans and Europeans are currently reaping the whirlwind of not mimicking this approach, they might want to start taking notes.