Why Quebec’s election turned into a slugfest over immigration

Not a bad overview. Election will likely demonstrate the weakness of first-past-the-post in situations of one dominant party and a number of smaller parties:

David Heurtel walked into the room and immediately spotted the angry man at the back.

It was November 2017 and the Quebec Liberal Party’s immigration minister was hosting a town-hall meeting in Sainte-Claire, a town across the river from Quebec City, in a rural region that is considered the province’s nationalist conservative heartland.

The man he spotted was typical of the local population. Older, white and francophone.

And he emanated a lingering, pent-up frustration.

“I said, ‘Oh, that guy is going to give me trouble at some point,’” Heurtel, a lawyer, recalled in an interview.

And he did.

Toward the end of the meeting, the man raised his hand. Heurtel braced himself and invited the man to air his grievance.

But it was not what he was expecting.

Not a complaint about Muslims or hijabs. Not about clashes of cultures and Quebec values. Not about the thousands of asylum seekers who had begun streaming across the border the previous summer. Not about the French-language abilities of newcomers to the province.

Not about any of these sinkhole political debates that appear with troubling regularity in Quebec, sucking in elected officials, media commentators, activists and community associations.

“He says, ‘For Christ’s sake, I need workers! I don’t give a damn if they’re red, purple, yellow or green. I need workers right now and I’ll teach them French myself!’” Heurtel recounted, speaking in Quebec’s working-class joual to fully express the colourful language.

Five years later, after the economic ravages of the pandemic and the continued aging of the population, the “Workers Wanted” refrain has only grown in desperation. In this sense, Quebec is no different from Ontario, Alberta or any other Canadian province or territory.

Which is why the combination of political punches launched this week by candidates, in the final days of an otherwise sleepy Quebec election campaign that will be decided next Monday, was so difficult to comprehend.

The sequence opened with an innocuous jab, the likes of which have sadly become a routine occurrence in Quebec politics.

A candidate for the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, Lyne Jubinville, was exposed by Montreal’s Le Devoir and forced to apologize for anti-Islam rants about “hijabs” that “increasingly invade our public space,” and about mosques and Muslim calls to prayer taking the place of emptied Catholic churches and silenced church bells.

It was followed by a hook from Jean Boulet, Heurtel’s successor as immigration minister, who belongs to the governing centre-right party Coalition Avenir Québec. In a clip from a local election debate held a week prior, he appeared to write off newcomers to Quebec as good-for-nothings.

“Eighty per cent of immigrants go to Montreal, don’t work, don’t speak French or don’t accept the values of Quebec society,” he said in the debate.

Boulet apologized for the tone of his comments, which he said were not an expression of his beliefs, but he was denounced by Quebec Premier François Legault, who said the minister had talked himself out of his ministerial post if he is re-elected on Oct. 3.

But then Legault himself delivered the roundhouse shot that left so many in this province seeing stars.

He delivered a speech to the Metropolitan Montreal Chamber of Commerce — an audience of employers and big-business owners — and spoke about this summer’s census report, which showed declines in the number of people who speak French across the country.

Legault said that if his party is re-elected, it would put in place tougher French-language requirements for immigrants and try to ensure that more of them settle in outlying regions of Quebec.

“But until we have stopped the decline of French,” he continued, “I think that for the Quebec nation that wants to protect its language it would be a little suicidal to go and increase immigration levels.”

“Suicidal.” The comments set off waves of anxiety among Quebec immigrants and second-generation Quebecers.

A journalist with the TVA network, Chu Anh Pham, wrote on Twitter about her parents, who fled the Vietnam War and settled in Montreal.

“Since they arrived here, they have always worked. We all learned French in Montreal and have never relied on social assistance. I have a tonne of other examples.”

Mamadou Doukara replied to her message and expanded on his experience in a radio interview. He explained how he spent his father’s inheritance to get from Mali to Quebec on a student visa, but immediately set about looking for work to reduce the financial burden on his family.

“Every provincial election was a source of stress,” noted Bao Long Hoang, another immigrant to Quebec, who wrote that he now lives in Ottawa. “So much stupidity voiced without shame.”

Dr. Joseph Dahine, an intensive care specialist who immigrated with his family to Montreal when he was a young child, said he likely never would have been able to afford his studies in medicine if his family had parents had immigrated to the United States.

He said Quebec should be celebrating what it has to offer — affordable daycare, publicly funded health care, low tuition fees and other attractions — rather than eternally fretting about cultural differences and religious backgrounds and mastery of the French language.

“Language is not the menace. It’s not the threat,” Dahine said in an interview. “It’s actually the reason why people come here. It’s usually their second language and they feel they could get by. They see an opportunity.”

Dahine likened the immigration process to joining a team and wanting to fit in. “You want to see people having fun, celebrating their culture. You want to look at these people and be inspired and say, ‘I want to be just like them,’” he said.

“As long as it’s a speech about the fear of losing something, it’s not an inspiring speech. Who wants to fit in with a group that is always talking about the fear of losing?”

Apart from the message such comments send to immigrants and homegrown Quebecers alike, Legault’s dark, defeatist tone is at odds with the great efforts and investments that the CAQ has made as a government, said Catherine Xhardez, an assistant professor of political science who specializes in immigration at Université de Montréal.

“They have this discourse that is a little alarmist and make these dark declarations,” she said. “In fact, the numbers are good and with (the Coalition Avenir Québec’s) policies they have invested a lot of money in francization (teaching French to newcomers) and integration.”

She also noted that the number of permits for temporary foreign workers has “exploded” under the CAQ. Recent statistics show the number of permits more than doubled from 13,030 in 2017 — the year before Legault’s party came to power — to 30,340 in 2021, the CBC reported.

“That’s what I find a little paradoxical with these dark speeches,” Xhardez said. “Do they think it’s useful to make comments that are much harsher than their policies? Because their policies have not been hard on immigration.”

It’s not just the CAQ, though. The immigration platforms of three of the five major parties competing in Monday’s elections hit similar notes.

The Parti Québécois, a diminished political force in recent years, proposes that knowledge of the French language, Quebec culture and the obligations and expectations that accompany citizenship be mandatory before immigrants set foot in the province.

And the newly significant Quebec Conservative Party, led by former radio shock jock Éric Duhaime, has suggested that new immigrants be screened to ensure they are “civilizationally compatible” with Quebec’s values, though Duhaime has taken steps in the campaign to distance himself from the term.

The other two parties, the Liberals and Québec Solidaire, have pro-immigration platforms. The left-wing QS promises to make it easier to have foreign education and employment credentials recognized; the Liberals suggest that priority be given to immigrants to immediately fill the gaps in health care, education and other in-demand sectors of the economy.

“Immigration is a solution. It’s not a problem,” said Heurtel, who said he is no longer an active member of any party. “Companies want them. Society wants them in general and the fact is that they’re a positive, not a negative.”

But for now, that ugly “Make Quebec Great Again” discourse persists, if only to drive the votes of those who feel most threatened by living on a French-speaking island in the midst of an English-speaking ocean.

Heurtel said the tendency will only be reversed by a radical change in the province’s political culture or a change to the voting system. As things stand ahead of Monday’s vote, the Coalition Avenir Québec are expected to win about 99 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats with just 39 per cent of the votes, according to opinion poll aggregator QC125.com.

The Liberals (16 per cent) are projected to take about 20 seats, Québec Solidaire (15 per cent) 10 seats and the PQ (15 per cent) just three. Despite having 14 per cent support, the Conservatives are not projected to win any seats.

But in politics, opinions and policies and allegiances are always shifting.

In politicians’ attitudes toward immigration, toward newcomers, there will be changes as well, said Dahine, the doctor. It just might take a while.

“As immigration happens — because it’s going to happen, because people need workers and brains and hands and arms — kids are going to grow up with a different picture of what society is. It’s going to be the new normal and one day it won’t be about where you come from but, ‘Hey! You’re from here as well,’” he said.

“It’s as though you’ll have a different flavour you add to the original Quebec recipe. Let’s put it that way.”

Source: Why Quebec’s election turned into a slugfest over immigration

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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