There is a vast amount of space between plausibility and truth. If one believes President Trump is a uniquely awful leader whose brief rule has tainted the United States into something undeniably repulsive, then it is certainly a plausible conclusion that Americans must be eager to leave and Canadians must have no interest in coming.
Likewise, if one believes that Canada under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become a nation of unprecedented opportunity and promise, then it is equally plausible that Canada will be a magnet for American talent — and indeed, the talent of the world.
Variations of this thesis have appeared in the U.S. media since Trump’s election. If such theorizing took the form of speculative editorials, that would be fine. It’s a plausible ideological theory that can be rationally argued. Yet in practice, much contemporary writing on the comparative popularity of America vs. Canada in the era of Trump has taken the form of supposed hard-news reporting that fails to concede its heavy reliance on conjecture. A supposed continental phenomenon is being presented as fact, despite a rather thin supply of corroborating evidence.
Take a December story in the New York Times about Canadians supposedly staying away from the border town of Blaine, Wash., because of their disgust with U.S. politics. This was presented as embodying a deeper souring in U.S.-Canadian relations, but proof beyond anecdote was hard to find. Amid confident assertions by a few random Canadians (“For a lot of people, your president is not their favorite, and they’ve chosen to stay home instead”) the story conceded that “statistics on border crossings have been mixed — with some months up from 2017 and others down.”
In any case, focusing on the fluctuating number of British Columbians crossing a single border point was a wonderfully creative way of avoiding the bigger picture: Canadian visits to the United States have increased during the Trump presidency.
The US National Travel and Tourism Office recorded an increase in Canadian arrivals during the first three quarters of 2017, reversing the negative trend of 2016, when Canadian arrivals had been down nearly every month. Indeed, as Maclean’s reported at the time, Canadians were noticeably more likely to have increased travel to Trump’s America than citizens of many other nations, “bucking a global trend in the Trump era.”
As Statistics Canada noted in its most recent travel report, both car and plane trips to the United States increased last year between January and October. After three years of decline, same-day and overnight trips to the United States by Canadian residents rose 2.7 percent in 2017.
One shouldn’t overstate things. Percentage-wise, these “increases” are in the single digits. But even then, as The Post reported in March, the reality of Canadian behavior toward the United States in the Trump age dramatically contradicts the breathless predictions of travel boycotts and tourism slumps that greeted the president’s election. It’s a problem born from seeking unrepresentative samples to validate predetermined conclusions.
A similar dynamic can be seen in constant media predictions that Canada’s gentler immigration policy — and Trump-free political climate — will exert a magnetic pull on the world’s greatest minds. A recent Bloomberg piece excitedly profiled a few foreign students in Canada who were specifically avoiding the United States. This was taken as evidence of Canada’s “massive, massive advantage,” in the words of a representative of the National Bank of Canada.
The piece approvingly notes that “in August, there were about 570,000 international students in Canada, a 60 percent jump from three years ago.” Sure, but Canada also granted more than 14,000 fewer foreign student study permits in 2018 (302,225) than in 2017 (316,290), according to StatsCan.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, granted 393,573 student visas in fiscal 2016-17, which, although a significant drop from the unprecedented highs of recent years (the figure peaked at 644,233 in 2014-15), is still substantially more than the comparable Canadian figure, and largely conventional by American standards.
The United States faces no risk of being dethroned as the world’s primary destination for international students. In 2017 the country’s foreign student population hit a record high of more than 1.1 million, says the Migration Policy Institute. According to the most recent 2018 data from Homeland Security, this includes 29,496 Canadian students — a larger group than the international student populations of the universities of Toronto and Montreal combined.
It’s clear that Canada’s attractiveness to the world matters less than Canada’s attractiveness to Canadians. If Canada is perfecting a strategy to import the world’s best and brightest, in other words, it will do so partially to compensate for a loss of domestic talent to the States.
In 2017, 18,469 people listing “Canada” as their last country of residence were granted permanent residence in the United States. Even when we factor in the standard American inflow to Canada (usually around 9,000 a year), this still represents a significant net gain for the United States. It likewise deserves mention that the 18,469 figure is significantly higher than the number of Canadian-born people given green cards in 2017 (11,484), meaning that several thousand people who relocated from Canada to the United States in 2017 were presumably immigrants to North America who made a conscious decision to switch countries.
It is possible to lie with statistics, but it’s easier to lie by ignoring them altogether. Progressive journalists on both sides of the border hold tight to a belief that political liberalism is what heroically distinguishes Canada from the United States, so when the two governments aggressively manifest this difference, enormous practical consequences must surely follow.
The evidence suggests, however, that plenty of Canadians simply don’t view the United States through this politics-first lens. For a variety of reasons — professional, cultural and personal — the United States remains an unavoidably attractive destination. Trump may well be anathema to the average Canadian’s sensibilities, but America is more than a transient politician.
Follow J.J. McCullough on Twitter: @JJ_McCullough