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Border-crossings debate could be Liberal vulnerability, if Tories can swoop in: pollsters

By Beatrice Paez      

Almost 50 per cent of Canadians don't think Ottawa is managing refugee claimants coming from the U.S. effectively, with two-thirds saying it's the feds' responsibility to provide funding supports, an August poll from Forum Research suggests.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has to continue to 'demonstrate they have an effective response' to the refugee claimants issue, said Lorne Bozinoff of Forum Research. The Hill Times file photo by Andrew Meade
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The government’s ability to manage the stream of refugee claimants arriving at Canada’s border could figure as a ballot-box question in 2019, but it’s an open question whether the opposition Conservatives can find support beyond their base by focusing on the issue, say pollsters and political observers.

The Conservatives’ efforts to highlight the issue around irregular border crossings appear to have moved the needle on the debate, with a survey in August suggesting that two-thirds of Canadians agree with their view that they have caused a crisis at and beyond the border. Another poll suggests the issue is a potential vulnerability for the Liberals in the next campaign.

A Forum Research poll, conducted from Aug. 10-12, suggests that 44 per cent of the 1,777 respondents thought the feds were not effectively handling the issue of asylum seekers well, with two-thirds saying it was Ottawa’s responsibility to foot the bill for funding supports for the asylum seekers. The results of the interactive voice-response survey are considered accurate within three per cent, 19 times out of 20.

“Once you get into this ’12 months to go until the next election’ [phase], everything starts to really matter. And you can’t have an unaddressed issue flapping around in the wind,” said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research. “[The Liberals] need to continue working this file and continue to demonstrate they have an effective response.”

Quebec, in particular, is where the government should focus its efforts, said Mr. Bozinoff. About 96 per cent of what the government classifies as “irregular”  border crossings in Canada this year have happened in Quebec. In the Forum poll, it was where 57 per cent said they think feds haven’t been so effective at addressing the issue, almost as high as in Alberta, where 59 per cent appear to share that view. This should be concerning to the Liberals, Mr. Bozinoff said, especially as they look to Quebec as a path to re-election.

Michelle Rempel,the Conservative immigration critic, has said  the Trudeau government is mishandling the issue, and that there is, in fact, a crisis at the border. The Hill Times file photo by Andrew Meade

Left-leaning voters offered a more generous assessment. For example, 51 per cent of those who identified as Liberal said the feds are handling the issue “somewhat effectively,” compared to 50 per cent of New Democrats and nine per cent of Conservatives.

David Coletto, chief executive at Abacus Data, said that it’s clear the issue has made it onto the radar of Canadians and has been an “effective tool for the Conservatives to animate their base.” But if you ask Canadians what issues keep them up at night, other issues that could determine the election outweigh concerns around irregular border crossings, such as housing affordability, climate change, health care, and Donald Trump, he said, citing a recent poll that his firm conducted. That’s the case even in Quebec, where health care is bigger issue, he said.

“If this [border crossings] is a crisis, then all of the other things that we tested that way more people are saying they’re concerned about are a crisis,” said Mr. Coletto, adding that he wasn’t contesting the results of other polls, but that things have to be put into perspective. 

Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates, said that “on the surface level, this is something people say is deeply troubling. But if you actually did a balanced survey, and provided them with some basic information, then you would find the depiction of it as a crisis would probably not…hold water.”

Recent figures showed that the number of irregular border crossings rose in July, though the figure fell far short of what the Quebec government had predicted. The Hill Times reported earlier that Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada recorded a total of 2,897 irregular border crossings in June and July, an average of 47 a day, compared to the 400 a day projected by Quebec.

In an emailed response to questions, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said, “Our government has a clear plan to address the increase in asylum seekers. July numbers were half of what they were at the same time last year. While these numbers are promising, Canadians expect all levels of government to work together to live up to our international and humanitarian obligations.” He added that experts have noted it’s “very difficult to predict the number of asylum seekers crossing the border.”

Issue a ‘gamble’ for Conservatives

The Conservatives may have been successful at pushing the issue onto the agenda, but the debate has widened to a question about values, Mr. Coletto said, and that could prove to be a gamble for them, especially with the bombshell exit of Maxime Bernier from the caucus.

“If he [Mr. Bernier] starts his own party or pulls together a rump of like-minded MPs, they now have to deal with that on their right and risk pulling themselves too far on this issue, [which] gives more room for the Liberals to be seen as more reasonable on this issue,” said Mr. Coletto. 

Since his appointment, Border Security Minister Bill Blair has been involved in discussions around the arrival of irregular border crossers. 
The Hill Times file photograph by Andrew Meade

As an example of where the Conservatives pushed the line too far and cost them votes, Mr. Graves cited the debate around women wearing a niqab in the last general election. The Conservative government of the day brought in legislation to ban the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies, a move that was challenged in the courts, and ultimately effectively reversed by the Trudeau Liberal government.

Polling at the start of the last election campaign seemed to suggest that the majority of the public was in favour of banning the Islamic veil at official events, including the citizenship ceremony, said Mr. Graves.

“But as the campaign evolved and as the issues became a little more complicated, and extended into other areas—maybe we should have a snitch line for barbaric cultural practices—we found the issue didn’t convert the voters Conservatives were hoping for,” Mr. Graves said.

John Delacourt, vice-president at Ensight Canada and former campaign manager to Border Security Minister Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.), said that Canadians are gradually getting a more nuanced understanding of the issue, pointing to an August story by the Canadian Press—which was strongly criticized as unbalanced by Ms. Rempel—that evaluated the Conservative claims of a crisis as “fully of baloney.”

“The government has taken the dialogue to really where it matters. Most of the Liberal caucus, including the minister of immigration and Bill Blair, have decided where these conversations really matter are out in the communities—out there with multicultural radio outlets, local and regional broadcast media outlets—to explain in greater deal what the situation really is,” said Mr. Delacourt, who also previously served as the communications director for the Liberal Research Bureau.

Though Mr. Blair has yet to receive his mandate letter, Mr. Delacourt said that if anybody can defuse the inflammatory rhetoric around the issue and engage in a constructive dialogue, it’s the former top cop of Toronto, and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen (York South-Weston, Ont.)

“Putting Bill Blair, the former police chief of Toronto, may help,” said Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and a former Conservative strategist. He added, however, that the Liberals “admitted that they’re weak” on this issue when they removed Mr. Hussen from the task force on irregular migration and replaced him with Mr. Blair. “They’re trying to deal with that perceived vulnerability and actual vulnerability.”

Mr. Bozinoff said the Conservatives don’t have a lot of wiggle room on the issue, because their supporters expect them to take the Trudeau government to task over the issue.

But Mr. Graves said that immigration hasn’t been much of a wedge issue in elections past. He said concern around the irregular border crossings is a highly partisan issue. “I don’t think Liberals are going to convince Conservative voters that you’re wrong, this isn’t a crisis,” he said. “There are people with legitimate policy concerns about, what’s the impact on shelters, what’s the impact on social services.”

He added that centre-left voters are more fluid than those who tend to lean right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Tories are at a greater advantage, saying, “The Conservative strategy will be effective in solidifying and emotionally engaging their base [on this issue]. But I’m not so sure it’s going to produce opportunities to grow.”


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