Opinion: Playing politics with Quebec’s future

Among Canada’s larger provinces, none is greying faster than Quebec. For the first time in its modern history, the province is struggling with labour shortages. To varying degrees all its regions including Montreal are affected.

Those shortages are projected to become more acute as the last of the baby boomers retire over the coming decade. Attracting workers from other provinces -as Alberta, Ontario or British Columbia routinely do – is less than an optimal solution. There is not in the rest of Canada a big supply of skilled workers readily able to function in French.

Why then are the province’s two main opposition parties campaigning on a promise to cut down on immigration?

If elected to power on Oct. 1, the currently leading Coalition Avenir Québec would reduce the number of immigrants coming to the province by 20 per cent as of its first year in office.

A CAQ government would also force newcomers, who do not after three years meet a government-set level of proficiency in French, to leave Quebec.

For its part, the Parti Québécois would limit admission to applicants who are already fluent in French. At this point, less than half of Quebec’s annual immigration intake falls in that category.

Under either plan, the number of immigrants admitted to the province would decline significantly.

By virtue of a longstanding federal-provincial agreement, Quebec selects all its immigrants except for those who apply for refugee status from inside Canada or who qualify under the family reunification program. But the citizenship process itself remains a federal responsibility and the national norms set by Ottawa apply in all provinces.

Quebec awards more points to applicants who are already fluent in French; it also proactively tries to woe them.

If there were a neglected pool of would-be immigrants – with the language skills the PQ considers essential – somewhere in the world, the province would have already found it.

On its face, the CAQ’s proposal to expel from Quebec those who fail to meet its language requirements is unconstitutional. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right of permanent residents to move from one province to another as they see fit.

But even if it did not, the proposition that the federal government – regardless of the party in power – should undertake to remove immigrants from Quebec to forcibly settle them elsewhere in Canada or, alternatively, to send them back to their country of origin would be dead on arrival on Parliament Hill.

Indeed, if CAQ Leader FrançoisLegault does become premier this fall, he might want to question the wisdom of shining a spotlight on the Quebec/Canada immigration accord, especially in a federal election year.

The agreement was last renegotiated in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the Meech Lake Accord – at a time when then-prime minister Brian Mulroney was desperate to blunt the impact of the failure of his constitutional bid in Quebec. It can be amended but not terminated by the federal government.

There is a reason why no Quebec government – including the PQ-led ones – has wanted to reopen the deal. It is one of the most advantageous federal-provincial agreements ever struck in the history of the federation.

It includes an escalator clause that ensures the funds Ottawa transfers to Quebec for immigration purposes do not decrease from year to year.

After more than two decades, there is a significant gap between the money Quebec receives per capita for integration purposes versus the funds transferred to the other provinces. That gap is larger than the extra costs involved in offering French-language training services. One would think no Quebec government would go out of its way to highlight this.

But then to look to common sense for the rationale of the PQ and the CAQ’s immigration proposals is to look in the wrong place.

By casting immigration as a threat to Quebec’s francophone identity, the CAQ and the PQ are playing to an audience of swing nationalist voters who could make or break their respective hopes on Oct. 1.

In this spirit, at mid-campaign Legault is casting his immigration platform as a firewall designed to prevent a French-language Quebec from disappearing within two or three generations.

There are no statistics to support the CAQ leader’s doomsday scenario. Quebec requires all immigrant children to be schooled in French until the end of high school. Even if their parents never managed to master the language, they would.

Were a future Quebec government to deliberately decrease its immigration intake even as the other provinces go the other way, it would be at a cost not only to its economy but also to its demographical weight and its influence in the federation.

Chantal Hébert is National Affairs a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.

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