André Pratte: How to prevent Quebec’s immigration sabre rattling from turning into a full-blown separatist crisis

Worth reading and thinking about, given the massive shift towards temporary immigration, many of course who transition to permanent residency.

The vast majority of temporary residents in Quebec are international students, 85 percent in 2021, but couldn’t easily find the breakdown between French and English language institutions (where much of the controversy lies).

Still, one can question just how important temporary workers, whether IMP or TFWP, are really that important in the broader scheme of things.

And of course, any agreement should avoid the failure of the Canada-Quebec accord, which guaranteed Quebec funding for immigration and integration based on the overall percentage increase in federal integration spending, largely independent of the number of immigrants. As a result, as Canada increases the number of immigrants to the rest of Canada, the imbalance between Quebec and rest of Canada increases:

Four months before voting day in Quebec’s provincial election on Oct. 3, Premier François Legault launched his de facto campaign, using the closing speech at his party’s convention last Sunday to announce what he would like to be the central theme of the election: immigration.

Legault explained that he will be seeking a strong mandate to convince the federal government to cede its jurisdiction over immigration to the province. “It’s a question of survival for our nation,” he asserted in his speech.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, the premier went so far as to say that if the provincial government did not get full jurisdiction over immigration, “in a matter of time, we could become a Louisiana.” In other words, French could practically disappear from Quebec.

The prediction, of course, is laughable. French is alive and well in Quebec, where 80 per cent of the population have French as their first language, while only two per cent of the residents of Louisiana still speak French. The premier’s apocalyptic scenario was ridiculed by most commentators. “Louisiana? Come on!” headlined La Presse’s editorial page.

But in the following days, Legault insisted that, “If no one is left speaking French at home, this means that French will eventually disappear.” His minister for the French language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, relayed the government’s view that if nothing is done, “the situation could become similar to that of Louisiana.”

It is difficult to know how Quebecers will react to this obvious ploy to create a crisis where none exists. We do know that a majority of them are convinced that the French language is at risk; this is why support for Bill 96 is so high. But do Quebecers think that French will disappear in short order? Hopefully, most of us are confident enough in our ability to keep our distinct culture alive.

However, one thing is certain: every time there is a jurisdictional squabble between the governments of Quebec and Canada, Quebecers side with their provincial government, even more so when the conflict regards an issue as sensitive as immigration.

Reacting to Legault’s demands, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the federal government would not cede its jurisdiction over immigration.

With both sides entrenched in their respective positions, and Legault sailing towards a sweeping victory on Oct. 3, what will the former separatist do when faced with what will be perceived as intransigence on the part of the federal government? Since this issue is now deemed to be essential to the French language’s survival in Quebec, what will his next step be if Ottawa continues to say no?

Some federalists are convinced that Legault will bring back to life the idea of Quebec’s independence. “Look at him go: he will say that he has no other choice but to hold a referendum on separation,” a prominent federalist told me.

The federalists’ fear is the separatists’ hope. “Quietly, before our eyes, a little more each day, the indestructible national question raises its head and recomposes itself,” wrote former Parti Québécois minister Joseph Facal, now a columnist at the Journal de Montréal.

For my part, I doubt that Legault is secretly planning a referendum on separation. On Thursday, he said: “I am a nationalist inside Canada.” Up until now, most Quebecers have supported the premier and his Coalition Avenir Québec government because they offered nationalist policies without the risk of separation. Would they follow him if he went as far as to propose Quebec’s sovereignty? I doubt it.

Nevertheless, the threat of separatism is back. What can Canada do to defuse the menace while not caving in to Quebec’s demands? It’s quite simple, really. Instead of shutting the door on negotiations with Legault, Trudeau should say that he is open to discussing amendments to the 1991 Quebec-Ottawa agreement on immigration.

That agreement gave Quebec the power to choose about 70 per cent of the immigrants coming into the province — mostly economic immigrants. Armed with this new power, Quebec has been able to choose a majority of newcomers who already speak French or are more susceptible to learning it.

The problem is that the number of immigrants still selected according to federal criteria — e.g., temporary workers and foreign students — has been increasing steadily in recent years. Most of those people do not speak French. This is what is perceived as a threat to Quebec’s culture — not the fact that they are immigrants, but the fact that, when they become permanent residents, they will grow the ranks of the English-speaking minority.

In other words, since the agreement was signed 31 years ago, the composition of immigration to Quebec has changed. The agreement is in need of an update to reflect the new reality, while continuing to affirm the federal government’s jurisdiction over the parts of the immigration system that are crucial for the protection of Canada’s interests and security.

If both parties were of good faith, a new deal could be reached in a matter of months, and there would be no need for grandstanding. In the current circumstances, however, this is a big “if.”

Source: André Pratte: How to prevent Quebec’s immigration sabre rattling from turning into a full-blown separatist crisis

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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