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Alain Giguère

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Do you think immigrants threaten the purity of the country? 53% of Quebecers and 42% of English Canadians believe they do (and La Juive by Jacques Fromental Halévy)

Categories: On my radar this week

Posted on 09-25-17 at 4:16 p.m.

The influx of refugees across Quebec's borders in recent weeks has attracted much media attention, particularly in La Belle Province itself. It has relaunched public debate about the potential impact of immigration on the country's identity and the costs associated with welcoming refugees.

Because of this new situation, we decided to update the results of a question about people's attitude to immigration, one we have been monitoring for years: "Overall, there is too much immigration; it threatens the purity of the country "("Do you totally agree, somewhat agree, etc.?). While it might seem morally reprehensible to ask such a question, the answers, along with their evolution over the last few months, are very striking on a sociological level.

In August, with the flood of asylum demands at our provincial borders, more than one in two Quebecers (53%) agreed with this statement, a 16-point increase since January, when we conducted our last annual survey of the country's values! During the same period, agreement rose from 37% to 42% in the rest of the country.

We can probably conclude that the unprecedented arrival of these asylum seekers provoked a knee-jerk reaction from the public. The reaction was strongest in Quebec, because events unfolded at the gates of this province, but there was also some reaction in English Canada, thanks to media reports on the situation.

Refugees and immigrants, and the fear of "the other"

The sociocultural and sociodemographic characteristics of those who consider immigration a threat to the purity of the country are very telling as to what triggers such an attitude.


These individuals harbour a strong fear of social exclusion, if not an outright feeling of exclusion. They believe that society is changing too fast and no longer has room for people like them. They blame their exclusion on what they believe are the unfair privileges and accommodations accorded to immigrants at their expense.

They see the growing social diversity (from immigration, as well as from changes in social mores) as a threat to the balance in their lives. They are losing their bearings and the familiar guideposts that make "their" world recognizable. They feel that they no longer control their lives; they feel overwhelmed by trends such as immigration and the globalization of markets and societies.

These people increasingly see society as a ruthless jungle from which they can be cast out at any time (if this hasn't already happened to them). They feel that their social identity is threatened, along with the cultural identity of "their" country.

They also are becoming very cynical about institutions, ("traditional") politicians and society's elites, which they hold responsible for the laissez-faire attitude that has cast society adrift.

These individuals generally belong to a middle class that feels battered by social and technological change, and by globalization, with which, in their minds, immigration is associated. They tend to work in technical trades, are blue-collar workers, live in outlying regions, in small (often single-industry) communities, and have below-average levels of income and education.

Because they are different, immigrants become "the other," a symbol, an icon, a sign, depersonalized, dehumanized, the root of the disintegrating benchmarks of the traditional society so dear to those feeling most vulnerable. The immigrant symbolizes the peril that the new world order represents for them, and for society's traditional values.

This kind of social upheaval has begotten the rise of populism in most Western countries today. The influx of a record number of asylum seekers in August in Quebec has exacerbated the perceived threat associated with immigration.


A challenge for society

Although some countries have elected and will continue to elect populist politicians with platforms promising to curb immigration and globalization with identity and protectionist policies, the globalization trend will continue, and those who want to isolate themselves will suffer for it.

Mass migrations, such as those undertaken by refugees, will continue. The displacement of populations is likely to accelerate due to the effects of climate change and regional conflicts.

On the other hand, on a demographic level, our population is rapidly aging, and is no longer replacing itself. Immigration will provide the labour force so badly needed by our economy.

Our society, and our institutions, will have to find ways to encourage people to live together in an increasingly diverse society. It is not a simple matter of fighting xenophobia and racism. It is about promoting the richness of this diversity, the contribution of "the other," the value (not to mention the beauty) of his difference, as well as his humanity.

The appeal of populism will probably continue to grow. Some politicians were unable to resist riding the wave of populist fervour in recent weeks. The risk is that our society will be derailed. A Canadian "Trump" could emerge; democracy would suffer.

La Juive (The Jewess) by Jacques Fromental Halévy

If immigrants are now viewed as a threat to the traditional social fabric, Jews have been playing this role for centuries. Politicians have used Jews as scapegoats for political gain, to unite people around a cause by identifying a common enemy. The Jew was "the other," who threatened and corrupted.

So, as this week's lyrical selection, I propose an excerpt from Jacques Fromental Halévy's opera, La Juive (The Jewess). This opera is set in 15th century Italy. When people discover that a Jew and a Christian had sexual relations, the Christian is excommunicated and the Jew, killed.

In this aria, a Jewish father bears witness to the condemnation of his daughter to death (in a boiling cauldron) because he refuses to convert to Christianity. It's actually more complicated than that but ...

La Juive: Jacques Fromental Halévy - Neil Shicoff, Krassimira Stoyanova, Simina Ivan, Wiener Staatsoper, Vjekoslav Sutej (dir.) - Deutsche Grammophon DVD, 2004