Public consultations begin on Quebec’s immigration strategy

The hearings will explore Quebec’s new immigration strategy, which includes strict French language requirements for economic immigrants.

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What should Quebec’s approach to immigration be?

The question will be studied during public consultations starting Tuesday as the province looks to finalize its immigration strategy for 2024–2027.

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Over the course of three weeks, the consultations will hear from cities, universities, unions, immigration lawyers and economists.

In all, a total of 77 briefs have been submitted ahead of time and some 70 experts or organizations have asked to participate.

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“What concerns us is the question of humanitarian and family immigration, which is very much on the margins,” said Stephan Reichhold, director general of the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes (TCRI).

“Immigration is mainly being talked about as an answer to the labour shortage in Quebec,” Reichhold said. “But historically, immigration was more about welcoming people who are becoming Canadian and part of society. We are far from that objective now.”

Announced in May, the public consultations are part of the Quebec government’s multi-year immigration planning process and reform.

Released at the same time, a 65-page discussion paper outlines how the provincial government views the challenge of setting immigration thresholds that are in line with its priority of protecting the French language.

In the document, Quebec Immigration Minister Christine Fréchette uses the analogy of the letter “Y” to describe the government’s approach.

“One of the branches represents the economy and the workforce we need, while the other represents the French language and francization,” Fréchette wrote. “These two branches must converge.”

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Under its new plan, Quebec is proposing two scenarios for the years ahead.

In one scenario, the province would aim to admit 50,000 people a year for each of the next four years, maintaining its current target.

The other option says Quebec could gradually build up its threshold each year until it reaches 60,000 in 2027 — an increase Premier François Legault has said in the past would be “suicidal” for the future of French.

The targets only account for permanent immigrants, which include economic, family and humanitarian immigration. They do not include temporary immigration, such as foreign workers or international students.

Quebec’s main business lobby, the Conseil du patronat, has praised the idea of increasing the target as a way to help cope with labour shortages. In a brief prepared for the hearings, the province’s largest association of boards of trade also welcomed the proposed increase.

The proposed reform also comes with strict French language requirements for economic immigrants  —  defined as skilled workers, investors and entrepreneurs — which accounted for two-thirds of immigrants Quebec welcomed last year.

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Among the requirements, those seeking to use the province’s economic immigration system would need to have a “sound knowledge” of the French language, with the level depending on the type of position they intend to hold.

The overall goal is that 96 per cent of economic immigrants know French by 2027, a target Legault has described as “unprecedented and extremely ambitious” but necessary.

In an interview ahead of the hearings, retired Université de Montréal demographer Marc Termote, who will take part in the process this week, cautioned against solely blaming immigration for the French language’s decline in Quebec.

“It is completely false, you see it in the numbers and there are serious studies that have shown this, to say immigration is the main cause of the decline of French,” Termote said.

Termote said the decline is rather caused by a mix of other factors, including how francophone Quebecers are having fewer children.

According to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, the number of people in Quebec age 65 or older surpassed those under 20 for the first time last year. Projections also suggest a quarter of the province’s population could be over 65 by 2031.

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Overall, with more than 70 briefs submitted and a long list of witnesses, Termote said he’s encouraged to see the level of interest in the hearings.

“It’s important, because we need to reflect on the consequences of immigration,” he said, whether economic or demographic, while also exploring the positive effects on the humanitarian and cultural side.

Reichhold, for his part, said he hopes the hearings can avoid some of the negative connotations he feels have been attached to the debate in recent years.

He said he would like to see Quebec society at large play a bigger role in helping welcome and integrate immigrants, and hopes the resulting strategy will reflect that.

His organization will make 35 recommendations in all, calling for the government to recognize immigration as a “project for an inclusive society.”

“We can’t just put the burden on the shoulders of immigrants,” Reichhold said. “It’s society’s responsibility, too.”

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