In The Media

How to debate immigration without distorting facts and foes

by Douglas Todd (feat. Andrew Griffith)

Vancouver Sun
September 30, 2017

Canada is one of the few advanced countries that can’t seem to hold an authentic public discussion about immigration policy.

Canadian boosters of high immigration and those who oppose it are mutually contemptuous. Their verbal boxing matches are dominated by sloganeering and name-calling.

If Ottawa is ever going to take seriously public opinion to fine-tune its immigration policies, the combatants need to follow a few rules. They may need a referee, who acts fairly when others are losing their heads.

Andrew Griffith may not realize it, but he has just stepped forward to be the mediator between those who advocate more open borders and those who seek greater restrictions.  

The high-level Immigration Department official, who has helped draw up the country’s citizenship policies, took early retirement to undergo cancer treatment.

But his time away from the bureaucracy has inspired him to write books and a compelling essay just published by the journal Policy Options, titled, “How to debate immigration policy in Canada.”

I’ve experienced Griffith’s diplomat-like poise. Occasionally, I’ve tried to get him to air stronger opinions, yet he doesn’t take the bait. He’s committed to even-handedness.

But he’s also realistic. To use an edgier phrase than he might, Griffith realizes Canadians are pretty pitiful at openly discussing immigration issues.

Like others, Griffith suggests fear of being labelled xenophobic is the over-riding contributor to Canadians’ unusual silence on mass migration, which has arguably defined this country more than any other.

It doesn’t help the cause of dialogue that almost no politician, and few academics, will critique how Canada’s approach to the complexities of immigration affects the host society.

As Simon Fraser University’s Sanjay Jeram recently said, Canada needs politicians, and the public, to more thoroughly air varied views on how migration impacts economic issues, especially salaries, housing prices, rental costs, traffic congestion and the social-safety net.

Before explaining Griffith’s incisive guidelines for how to fight fairly, it’s worth mentioning the source of Canadians’ too-hot-to-handle avoidance of immigration issues.

In the 1990s, I assumed people who complained about political correctness were mostly just opposed to social-justice causes. But, increasingly, even the left wing has grown frustrated by PC over-protectiveness.

A recent Angus Reid poll found seven in 10 Canadians say political correctness has “gone too far,” leading them to routinely self-censor. That’s higher than even in the U.S.

Four of five Canadians, especially millennials, also agree: “These days it seems like you can’t say anything without someone’s feelings being offended.”

Since Griffith assumes Canada will always welcome immigrants, international students and temporary foreign workers, he believes we’ve got to be less afraid of discussing the process required to make sure that succeeds.

The Immigration Department insider first examines the arguments put forward by the boosters; the people, usually from the corporate world, who want to dramatically hike migration rates.

He cites the Century Initiative and Justin Trudeau’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which include people who want Canada’s population to hit 100 million, soon. Griffith could also have named flag-bearers from the media, such as Doug Saunders, author of Maximum Canada.

Griffiths has pearls of wisdom for how the advocates could fight more fairly and logically.

Advocates of expanded immigration have to stop labelling their opponents as  deplorables, xenophobes and racists, he says.

I’ve found stereotyping of opponents is common among boosters, and the media, who are also prone to refer to immigration-skeptic political parties as anti-immigrant, far right and xenophobic.

Griffith doesn’t mention it, but a better word for such parties would be nativist, defined as those who seek to reduce current immigration flows to protect elements of their culture.

Many nativist parties, such as those in Finland, Denmark and Italy, are not economically right wing. They stand for policies Canada’s left can only dream about, like generous welfare, universal daycare and free higher education.

Griffith’s second most important criticism of immigration apologists is they’re predilection to make sweeping claims about economic prosperity.

Advocates should “avoid using catchy round numbers without substantiation,” Griffith says. Instead of focusing on how migration can increase the GDP, they need to examine its mixed regional impacts and its dubious effects on average incomes.

Griffith says a study by UBC economists Craig Widdell and David Green and Carleton University’s Christopher Worswick found “neither a positive nor a negative impact of immigration on jobs and wages.”

Griffith also urges boosters to stop:

Griffith raises equally valid criticisms of those who want to restrict immigration.

Too many critics, he says, seize on individual examples to assign negative characteristics to ethno-cultural groups, “such as by labelling all Muslims as extremists.”

I also support Griffith in urging critics to rely less on anecdotes, more on statistical evidence.

In addition, Griffith urges critics to stop:

By reducing the rhetorical mistakes of each camp, Griffith believes Canadians could finally have a constructive debate over mass migration.

“Debate is normal and healthy,” he says, “provided that it is conducted in a respectful and thoughtful manner.”

Can Canadians, who take pride in their niceness, step up to the plate — and model how to openly discuss immigration in a way that is both more real and more civil?

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