There is a plurality of Canadians who support the current Liberal government's plan to resettle thousands of refugees in Canada, with particular reference to Syrian war refugees. However, the issue has also been a cause for serious contention and contestation in Canadian politics.
During the fall 2015 Canadian federal election campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that his Conservative government would not permit Muslim women to wear the niqab during their citizenship ceremonies. Along with the government’s announcement of a ‘barbaric practices hotline,’ such alarmist policies provided the Conservatives a temporary boost in popularity though not enough to win the election. The new Liberal government that came to power in October 2015 as a majority government summarily cancelled this Conservative initiative. Still, Harper’s attack on the niqab was a reflection of increasing Islamophobia in Canada. Unlike right-populist politics in much of Europe and the USA, anti-immigrant and anti-visible minority migration was not central to populist conservatism in Canada until relatively recently. After the right-populist Reform Party of Canada re-branded itself as the Canadian Alliance party, it then merged with the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, which created the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) in 2004. Meanwhile, having worked hard to include immigrant communities in its electoral coalition, and benefitting from a substantial visible minority vote in both 2008 and 2011 elections, the CPC couldn’t afford to let an overtly nativist predominate its public face. Instead, circumstances unique to Canada have required populist conservatism to approach multiculturalism in novel ways. The resultant politics of conservative populism was markedly strategic about developing a nuanced politics of exclusion, focused primarily on degrading the welfare state including the area of immigration and refugee admission policies.
Following some initial initiatives that framed the current nature of populism’s encounters with multiculturalism, Canadian multiculturalism defined in broad conceptual and policy terms began to form the backdrop for the thinning of the state’s involvement in migrant and refugee resettlement. In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, conservative populist objections to egalitarian and policy-related and therefore publicly funded aspects of Canadian multiculturalism figure prominently. In both ideological and policy terms, the nativist promotion of openly anti-immigration, anti-multicultural policies provided the initial impetus for ‘alternative solutions’ such as the expansion of private sponsorship programs as well as increasing reliance on public-private partnerships in the critical area of refugee admissions and resettlement. As part of a broader CPC agenda of undermining key elements of Canadian citizens’ and governments’ commitments to the welfare state, Canadian conservatism repeatedly campaigned for tax cuts, de-regulation of the state/market interface, restructuring of immigration and refugee policy, and regressive social welfare reforms.