The big issue in Canada, as in other western liberal democracies, next to the economy is immigration. It is of concern to everyone, yet it is a conversation spoiler whenever the subject is raised in private or public gatherings. But it demands attention, and we must learn to discuss immigration and its implications for our country as a liberal democracy without becoming insulting or abusive.

Canada is a country of immigrants, as is the United States, and this fact in itself poses a hurdle to overcome ahead of engaging in any critical discussion of immigration as a public policy issue. The reason is simple, because it is taken for granted by many that the long-term net benefit of immigration far outweighs all costs in short or medium term. To question this assumption goes against the view turned into an ideology by those who favour open and higher levels of immigration as a defining characteristic of Canada.

John McCallum, a former Liberal cabinet minister, in expressing this idea some time ago observed, “we are very good” in “attracting people from all over the world and creating a society that welcomes people of all races, religions and cultures.” The implication of McCallum’s publicly stated opinion is obvious — those who question the existing immigration policy or advocate measures for some constraint in the levels of immigration would be hurting Canada’s image.

Immigration is not only about numbers, but numbers are very important for they, over time, change the demographic profile of the country. With this change follows others, and when to the mix is added the politics of multiculturalism, the accumulated change over time can alter substantively the country’s culture — for Canada, this would be its culture of liberal democracy.

It was Enoch Powell, a parliamentarian in Britain, who warned in a public speech in Birmingham in 1968 about the significance of numbers when it comes to immigration. He said, the “consequences of an alien element introduced into a country or population are profoundly different according to whether that element is 1% or 10%.”  Powell was loudly condemned for stoking bigotry, and that speech effectively ended his career in politics. But four decades later, especially in the aftermath of July 2005 suicide bombings in London and concerns over “homegrown terrorism,” many now view Powell’s Birmingham speech as prophetic.

Yet numbers or levels of immigration have been of late given considerable attention in the public media. A recent study by Irvin Studin published in Global Brief, an online journal, proposes “Canada should be a country of 100 million people” and, thereby, in this new century become one of the most consequential states in the world. Studin’s study was not merely provocative. Instead Robert Kaplan, another former Liberal cabinet minister, publicly expressed gratitude for Studin’s bold idea with advice to members of his party to incorporate this vision into their strategic thinking.

This one small column is inadequate in examining immigration as a policy in some depth. I hope in a few more columns to go beyond numbers in discussing the sociology of immigration, by which I mean looking at immigration in a historical and cultural context.