Will Québec get things right with immigration?
Not surprisingly, immigration and the integration of newcomers has become a contentious issue in the 2022 Québec election campaign.
Business groups have been urging Québec’s political parties to increase the province’s immigration levels if they're elected on Oct. 3, to help employers fill more than 200,000 vacant positions.
Québec’s official annual immigration threshold has been capped between 40,000 and 50,000 in recent years, but the province will welcome nearly 70,000 newcomers in 2022 to make up for shortfalls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past week, Québec’s main party leaders have expressed opposing positions on how many immigrants the province should accept each year as businesses continue to grapple with labour shortages:
Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon proposed cutting immigration levels down to 35,000 per year, citing the need to protect the French language and Québec culture. He also rejected the idea that more immigrants will help ease labour shortages, arguing that new arrivals increase demand for goods and services, resulting in a need for more workers.
Coalition avenir Québec leader François Legault said he believes the province can integrate up to 50,000 immigrants per year, while still protecting the French language and Québec culture. He said maintaining this threshold will continue to make Québec a region that accepts one of the highest levels of immigrants in the world relative to its population.
Liberal leader Dominique Anglade committed to an initial target of 70,000 newcomers per year if elected, promising to work with individual regions to determine their real needs going forward. She called Plamondon "disconnected" from the reality on the ground and said his position shows he isn’t listening to employers who are struggling to find workers.
Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said he believes that the province could handle integrating between 60,000 and 80,000 newcomers. He said if his party is elected they will set up a committee of experts to determine Quebec’s immigration capacity.
Québec’s Conservatives have proposed gradually reducing immigration targets, while working to increase automation in the workplace and raise the province’s birth rate.
All the heated discussion around this topic eventually culminated with outgoing Premier Legault apologizing for comments he made citing the threat of "extremism" and "violence", as well as the need to preserve Québec’s way of life, as reasons to limit the number of immigrants to the province.
Could Québec’s next government impact immigration?
For the rest of the country, this lively debate over immigration levels might seem a bit odd. Given that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has already set a target to welcome more than 430,000 permanent residents to Canada this year, as part of a plan to increase the country’s total level of newcomers to at least 1.3 million by 2024, will Québec even get a say?
The answer is yes. Under a 1991 agreement with Ottawa, Québec is the only province in the Canadian federation permitted to determine its own level of economic immigration and somewhat enforce its own immigration thresholds and targets.
Setting these targets in Québec has always stirred up partisan tensions. In 2016, Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard accused Legault, then in opposition, of "blowing on the embers of intolerance" by wanting to limit the number of immigrants to the province.
Legault was then elected in 2018 on the promise to “take less, but to take care of them better", committing to lower the number of immigrants to 40,000 per year over three years, but to increase investment in resources dedicated to their integration.
After initially upholding these commitments at the beginning of its mandate, the CAQ has since taken a less restrictive approach to immigration in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. While Legault has expressed a commitment to bring the province’s level of newcomers back down to 50,000 per year, this may not be a unanimous position within his party: Minister Jean Boulet, who was responsible for labour and immigration in Legault’s outgoing government, indicated that he was open to an increase, before being called to order.
Meanwhile, pressure on Québec’s next government to increase immigration levels is mounting, especially from the business community. The province is suffering from a severe labour shortage across numerous sectors, with current job vacancies now actually greater than the number of people unemployed. The Conseil du Patronat has made raising Québec’s immigration threshold one of its main demands, and calls from major employers are multiplying.
If Legault and the CAQ want to ensure their chances of re-election, they will need to take this pressure seriously. At the same time, given their desire to be regarded as both “the party of the economy” and the standard-bearer for Québec nationalism, they will have to balance the needs of the labour market with the concerns of their core voters. A significant proportion of Quebecers fear that increasing immigration will threaten the dominance of the French language, especially in the Montréal area.
To be fair, this fear is not entirely unfounded. The province’s difficulties getting newcomers to adopt French as their main language have been well documented. A 2017 report from Québec’s auditor general revealed only one third of new arrivals were signing up for French-language courses and 90% of graduates were unable to functionally communicate in French for their day-to-day activities.
This reality certainly complicates the immigration debate, as the province has more at stake than just its labour pains. Hopefully the party that forms Québec’s next government will be able to remain open minded and find innovative ways to address these challenges. If the province wants to successfully compete with other jurisdictions, it will need to be able to welcome a level of immigrants more in line with its economic needs, and closer to its share of the Canadian population.