News & Events

April 03, 2013

New study shows national identity in English Canada compatible with inclusive view of immigration

In a study sponsored by the Environics Institute, UBC doctoral candidate Charles Breton looked at the impact of priming national identity on English Canadians' openness to immigration and multiculturalism.


National identities more often than not are divisive. Whenever a group begins to think of itself as such, those outside the group will inevitably be left out of what David Hollinger called “the Circle of We.” In many European countries, national identities are typically restrictive towards immigrants: Newcomers living in countries such as France, Germany, and Italy are often seen as not being truly French, German, or Italian, depending on where they came from and their skin colour or religion. This is exemplified by nationalist parties like the Front National in France and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, whose discourse is strongly xenophobic and anti-immigration.

But national identities vary both in their intensity and in what is widely considered to embody national traits. The British celebrate their stoicism, the French their sophistication, Americans their industriousness, and so on. In Canada, pride in multiculturalism and openness to immigration are often celebrated as national virtues; this is often seen as one reason why immigrants integrate into Canadian society with relative success, and why Canadian politics is largely devoid of anti-immigrant backlash.

The research described in this paper addresses the question of whether Canadians’ sense of national identity conforms to the European model of leaving immigrants out of the “Circle of We”, or reflects a more inclusive perspective in which multiculturalism and immigration are positive attributes.

To answer this question, a study was conducted to test the impact of highlighting national identity when thinking about immigration and multiculturalism. The research used a technique known as “priming” to bring considerations of national identity to the fore in the minds of individuals as they answer subsequent questions about immigration and multiculturalism. Making people think of what it means to be Canadian when answering follow-up questions makes it possible to measure the effect of national identity on attitudes towards immigration.

To test the Canadian narrative, a survey was conducted in June 2012 with a representative sample of 1,500 Canadians living outside of Quebec. The survey first presented respondents with one of two priming statements to highlight national identity (plus a control group that received no prime), followed by four questions to measure attitudes about immigration and multiculturalism.

A similar study conducted in the Netherlands found that priming national identity prompted the Dutch to become more opposed to immigration. The authors of this research concluded this demonstrated the “flash” component of the politics of immigration in Europe, in which politicians effectively stoke opposition to immigration and mobilize supporters by priming restrictive national identities.

The results of this research reveal several important insights about how this dynamic plays out in Canada. First, Canadians share some of Europeans’ concerns about immigration and multiculturalism. For example, three-quarters (74%) of Canadians disagreed (strongly or somewhat) that ethnic minorities should receive government assistance to preserve their customs and traditions, and seven in ten (70%) felt that Canadian values were threatened (compared with only 50% in the Netherlands).

At the same time, Canadians did not respond in the same way to the priming of national identity. Unlike the Dutch, neither of the two preambles that primed identity as Canadians made them more opposed to immigration, and in some cases prompted them to have more inclusive views (in comparison with those who received no priming).

The study demonstrates that despite notable public concerns about the impacts of immigration, national identity in English Canada does not have the effect of increasing negative sentiments towards immigrants and multiculturalism, as is the case in the Netherlands and likely other European countries. This suggests that it is possible – in Canada at least – for a sense of national identity to coexist with, and perhaps even be strengthened by, an inclusive “Circle of We.”


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