Caddell: Is immigration the next Ottawa-Quebec battle?

Captures the demographic dilemma facing Quebec in relation to the rest of Canada, even if I question the “more is merrier” approach of the Canadian and provincial governments:

In 1960, Kamouraska was home to 2,000 people. The baby boom was at its peak, there were dozens of dairy farms, and tourism created summer jobs. Today, there are fewer than 600 permanent residents, and while a tourist mecca in summer, it is quiet in the winter. There are many elderly, few young families, and fewer farms. This summer, as everywhere in Canada, employers were desperate to find employees.  

In other provinces, the solution to declining birth rates and labour shortages is immigration. And as the 2021 census indicated, population growth has been due to immigration. Hence the announcement Ottawa would increase the threshold to 500,000 new arrivals annually. 

This number is double what the Harper government sought and is in line with analysts like Doug Saunders, author of Maximum Canada, who believe Canada can sustain a population of 100 million people. 

However, in Quebec, the announcement was greeted with caution. Premier François Legault has warned of the “threat to French” of immigration and refused to raise Quebec’s share from 50,000 to 25 per cent of the national total: 125,000. Last week, Legault said, “We have to find a way, in the 50,000, to have more of them who speak French.”

This is a rejection of the strategy of the Charter of the French Language, Bill 101. In the 1970s, Premier René Lévesque and the father of Bill 101, Camille Laurin, told me the language law’s obligation for immigrants to attend French schools was the solution to declining Francophone birthrates. 

Today, however, non-Francophone immigrants are perceived as a problem. While fluent in French, some speak their mother tongue at home, and many also speak English. This trilingualism, rather than a huge asset, is interpreted by nationalist demographers and pundits as a “decline” in French. Speaking the language is not good enough: immigrants now must be mother-tongue French.  

But much of the Francophonie is found in Muslim Africa. Under the secularism law, Bill 21, practicing Muslims can’t work as teachers, police officers, or in the courts. Two weeks ago, an African driver was handcuffed and detained by Montreal police, for no reason. These are not signs of a welcoming society; one commentator says Legault’s preferred immigrant is “a white millionaire from France.” 

Quebec’s chattering classes are predicting immigration will be the next confrontation between Ottawa and Quebec. Premier Legault wants immigration powers to create his Francophone “nation.” This would mean an expansion of Quebec’s presence abroad, and immigrants applying as if Quebec were a sovereign state.  

As it is, that is how Quebec interprets itself to aspiring immigrants, according to a booklet provided to them. 

The booklet, upon which an online assessment is based, declares “Québec is a French-speaking democratic nation that welcomes immigrants from around the world.” It points out: “Québec society has also made French the language of Government and the Law, as well as the everyday language of work, education … and business.”  

All of which is untrue, as English is constitutionally guaranteed in the courts, there are three English universities, and 1.25 million Anglophone Quebecers. The booklet goes on: “As a state, Québec differs from other provinces in Canada, notably with respect to the impetus of popular will.” Furthermore, the Crown does not exist: “The Lieutenant Governor does not have a seat in the National Assembly, but assents to bills the legislature passes.” The federal government is brushed off as running “military defence, foreign policy and criminal law.” A grade nine student would get an “F” for an essay like this booklet. 

Quebec’s population is 8.6 million people. With a huge influx of immigrants in the rest of the country and reductions in Quebec, it is bound to become a smaller proportion of Canada’s population. 

This offers a “Hobson’s choice” for Quebec nationalists: accept new immigrants as equal to “old stock Québécois,” or shrink to a tiny fraction of the continent. The business community desperately wants the population and the economy to grow, and they see trilingualism is an asset internationally, especially in cosmopolitan Montreal. 

By restricting immigration, Legault’s short-sighted vision is a Quebec “nation” that’s North America’s Finland: a tiny homogenous population in a massive territory. It is yet another example of how nationalism could be suicidal for Quebec and the French fact in Canada. 

Source: Is immigration the next Ottawa-Quebec battle?

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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