This report examines Canadians' opinions on immigration and their populist and nativist tendencies. It also surveys election candidates' use of social media across platforms.

Executive Summary

Since the Digital Democracy Project began surveying Canadians earlier this summer, immigration has consistently ranked around the middle of the list of political issues of concern to the public. Canada has a long history of embracing immigrants and refugees, but with rising populist and nativist sentiment in the United States and Europe—and the emergence of the People’s Party of Canada at home—politicians and analysts have been watching closely to see if immigration is becoming a consequential election issue.

The short answer is that it is starting to, though not in the strictly polarizing manner that is usually feared. The good news is that Canadians across the political spectrum have somewhat complex and nuanced views on immigration, and that these views can be influenced by relevant information (such as the correct number of immigrants being admitted into the country.)

The bad news, perhaps, is that because the politics of immigration is so multi-dimensional, it means much of the public debate around it tends to be at cross purposes.

Key Findings: Immigration and Nativism

  1. The most important dimension of immigration for Canadians is its impact on jobs and the economy. Aside from that, priorities vary by party allegiance, and partisan views reflect the issue areas emphasized by candidates on social media.

  2. Nativism—feelings of support for native-born citizens over immigrants—is more common among conservatives, but also among those who feel the economy or their personal finances are getting worse.

  3. Most Canadians do not have a clear idea of how many immigrants and refugees Canada admits, and many assume the number of refugees is higher than it is. But providing people with facts about immigration and the economy affects their perceptions of immigration, their opinions about immigration policy and their levels of nativist sentiment. These effects are especially pronounced for conservatives.

Key Finding: Social Media Case Study

  • When it comes to social media outreach, Facebook and Twitter are the social platforms of choice for most candidates. Aside from Liberals and Conservatives, candidates have a limited presence on Instagram, and candidates across the board are virtually absent from YouTube.

Issue Findings

For Canadians, the political salience of immigration varies according to their partisan allegiances. We asked our survey respondents to choose which of eight different aspects of immigration was of concern to them. Jobs and the economy was the top-ranked issue area overall at 47%, followed by integration (45%) and cultural values (40%). Both Conservative and Liberal partisans put jobs and the economy in their top three, but right- and left-wing supporters diverge beyond that. While Liberal and NDP partisans prioritize integration and diversity, Conservatives put cultural values in the top spot (43%). Conservatives were also far more likely to identify national security (43%) and illegal immigration (42%) as key aspects of immigration, compared to Liberals (28%, 28%) and NDP partisans (17%, 27%).

Canadians also tend to overestimate the number of immigrants and refugees admitted to the country. We asked respondents how many immigrants the federal government was planning to admit in 2019 and how many refugees Canada admitted in 2018. In both cases, the majority said they were unsure. Only 15% got the first question right, and 12% answered the second question correctly. Respondents who guessed wrong about refugees were more likely to assume the number is higher than it is. In the case of refugee intake, 24% of respondents believed Canada accepted more refugees than it did last year, while 3% thought the number was lower.

One factor that could influence public opinion about immigration policy is the prevalence of nativism, or the idea that the needs of native-born Canadians should be prioritized over immigrants. We measure nativism with a battery of questions that tap into respondents’ perceptions of whether immigrants are costly to society. Overall, Canadians exhibit modest levels of nativism, with an average score of 0.45 out of 1. Liberal and NDP partisans score far lower than Conservatives in their expressed nativist sentiment (0.38 and 0.38 vs. 0.55). The PPC and other smaller parties were not included in this question because the sample size was too small.

Aside from partisan leanings, the factors most strongly correlated with nativism are economic. We asked respondents whether they perceived the economy and their personal finances to be getting better, getting worse or staying the same over the past year. Respondents who perceived the economy to be getting worse had nativism scores 0.2 points higher than those who thought the economy was getting better. Similarly, those who believe their personal finances are getting worse have nativism scores 0.14 points higher than those who thought their finances were improving.

Generally speaking, candidates’ posts on Twitter and Facebook are likely to reflect the top issues identified by their respective partisans. These findings suggest that the parties may be talking past each other on the issue of immigration.

Information Findings

The link between economic perceptions and nativist sentiment raises the question of whether providing Canadians with information about the economic benefits of immigration could lead them to see immigration in a more positive light. We randomly provided half of our respondents with an excerpt from a 2018 Conference Board of Canada report that says immigrants are needed to keep the economy growing. For respondents who did not receive this information, 23% thought immigration was bad for the economy and 57% thought it was good. Those numbers shifted to 19% and 63% for respondents who read the excerpt. The results were similar when respondents were asked whether they wanted to see immigration levels increase or decrease, and when they were given the battery of questions that indicate levels of nativism—those who read the excerpt were more likely to support raising immigration levels and less likely to rank highly on our nativism index.

Interestingly, while theories of motivated reasoning suggest that partisan respondents will reject information that doesn’t conform to their existing values or beliefs, the effect of this intervention was stronger for right-leaning partisans than for left-leaning partisans. All of this suggests that providing the public with relevant information could also influence their opinions on public policy, and that nativism is not as much of an immutable sentiment as commonly believed.

Case Study: Candidates on Social Media

Finally, our data research team tracked candidates’ social media activity across a range of platforms. Social media activity jumped by about 20% after the campaign officially started on Sept. 11. The Liberals reach far more people with their messaging across social media platforms, but the Conservatives are competitive in their Facebook engagement, having by far the most shares on Facebook. The Bloc Québécois also outpace the Liberals on engagement in Quebec.

Not surprisingly, Twitter continues to be the platform of choice for candidates, with the vast majority of social media posts being shared there. Most candidates’ accounts are on Facebook and Twitter; aside from the Liberals and Conservatives, comparatively few candidates have Instagram accounts, and political YouTube activity was so sparse that the platform was excluded from this study. A recent report from the Ryerson Leadership Lab found that 65% of Canadians age 18-29 watch YouTube daily and 52% use Instagram daily, while just 24% are daily Twitter users. If politicians are looking to reach voters under 30 through their social media outreach, they might want to rethink this strategy.


Our survey data team conducted an online panel survey of 1,559 Canadian citizens 18 years and older using the online sample provider Qualtrics. The sample was gathered from Sept. 11-16. Data was weighted within each region of Canada by gender and age to ensure it adequately represented the Canadian public. Survey respondents were asked questions related to basic demographics, as well as their partisan, ideological and issue preferences. We present 90% confidence intervals for each of our figures below. Partisan sub-groups are restricted to the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP for sample size considerations.

For our online data research, this week we tracked activity from candidate accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. We collected a list of candidate accounts from party lists hosted on their websites, supplemented by automated searching for remaining candidates. Since Aug. 1, 2,378 candidate accounts have shared content. We collected information on engagement—such as retweets, replies, comments, likes, favourites, etc.—and present summary statistics here to give a portrait of the social media battleground in Canada. We used text from candidate posts on Twitter and Facebook to gauge issue and immigration-dimension emphasis by party, using keyword-in-context analysis.