Editorial: CAQ leader plays race card in opposing immigration target

François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, is playing the race card in his bid to build support among the francophone majority. He made that clear in a speech in Saint-Jérôme promoting his party’s candidate in a by-election there. But he also is laying the
groundwork for his pitch to voters in the election expected in 2018.

“Race card” may sound like a bold accusation but it fits because it underpins the former Parti Québécois cabinet minister’s call to cut Quebec’s immigration target to 40,000 from 50,000 annually.

Legault’s claim that the much-needed injection of new blood to maintain our workforce and population is a threat to Quebec’s French language and culture is based on a false and partial reading of recent statistics.

It indicates that this former business entrepreneur is prepared to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment to outflank his former party on the nationalist side, conveniently ignoring the fact that Quebec must attract and retain 50,000 or more immigrants each year for the foreseeable future to compensate for the below-replacement level fertility rate in the province.

Only with more working age newcomers can we continue to grow, fill our schools and universities, employ teachers and support staff, and fulfill the economy’s other employment needs. Even if not all immigrants get jobs easily and quickly, bringing them here – and in most cases that means to the Montreal metropolitan region – vitalizes construction and consumption that generate jobs and taxes and ensure the health of our pensions, medicare, and other social programs that are
features of our way of life, and yes, our culture.

It is absolutely false for Legault, and others in the PQ, such as leadership hopeful Jean-François Lisée, to proclaim that so many newcomers are a threat to Quebec culture and values — as if “Quebec culture” were something static. Who would have thought that between 1959 and 1971 Quebec would move from having the highest birth rate in Canada to having the lowest. This had a huge impact on every aspect of life in the province. And formal marriage is going out of style!

Let’s look at the thin basis of Legault’s argument: The 2014-15 annual report of the Quebec Immigration department indicates that an increasing number, or 60 per cent, of adult immigrants who said they did know French when they came to Quebec did not enroll in free government French courses. This was seen as worrisome, since in 2008 only 40 per cent of non-francophone adult landed immigrants did not sign up for these courses. Is this really something to panic about? Many of these same people, as a ministry spokesperson explained, are qualified workers who may well have said they did not speak French yet are from Haiti, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and even France where they have been exposed to French and will pick it up fast in their new work and home environments. The essential point is that their children will attend French schools and be immersed in the majority culture.

Legault says he’s worried that 41 per cent of new immigrants don’t speak French, conveniently failing to mention that their children will be schooled in French – if their parents stay. Of greater concern is that fully one quarter of landed immigrants who came here from 2004 to 2013, or 118,000 people, left Quebec. According to a report in Le Devoir, half of them in their immigration applications said that they did not speak French. So that 41 per cent figure does not mean that unilingual immigrants when they arrive stay here, or that they never learn French, or that their children who must attend French schools become little anglos.

Montreal will never be as French as Chicoutimi, and that is part of what makes this city so attractive: It’s mainly French, but wonderfully cosmopolitan. No city is a figurative island, cut off from the societies that surround it. Montreal and Quebec province cannot regain lost dynamism and flourish without a strong flow of immigrants, who will find it to their advantage to learn French, either in government schools, or in their working and living environments, even as the culture they bring with them impacts society at large. There is no way we can continue to attract immigrants if we force them to attend French classes. For many immigrants, coming to North America means coming to an overwhelmingly English environment, and those desperate to leave their countries of origin may not realize all the issues involved in moving to Quebec until they get here. Some will leave, but we need the greater flow to ensure that enough stay.

Attracting qualified immigrants who can contribute to our society is and will remain a balancing act. Quebec has every reason to award more points to those who speak French or are likely to learn the language. The process will never be perfect or easy, but playing the race card is no way to encourage people to come and residents to understand why they are needed.

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