After the provincial budget and the Parti Québécois and Action démocratique du Québec conventions, as well as the Bouchard-Taylor commission, the immigration issue is front and centre. But the debate has become highly politicized, obscuring the real problems immigrants face in Quebec.
The questions that torment many immigrants are : Why are our diplomas and work experience given so much importance before we are accepted as permanent residents, and so little after we move here ? Is it a trap that we fell into ? Or does the government think that integration is only a matter of time and in 10 or 15 years the problems will disappear by themselves ?
These questions highlight the challenge of trying to understand the rationale behind the Quebec government’s immigration policy. Immigration is seen as a way to promote the cultural diversification of Quebec society, to slow down or stop population decline, or to meet labour shortages. Seldom considered is the point of view of newcomers.
The important thing to remember is that the question of immigrant integration is not just a matter of the benefits to Quebec society but also of equality for immigrants. And yet a number of studies show that immigrants face significant hardships in the Montreal labour market - high unemployment rates and frequent skill devaluation. Many families live in poverty.
How can one explain this, given the numerous agencies and social programs available to immigrants ? In seeking answers, it is important to understand that labour-market integration of immigrants is a long and difficult process, one that is time-consuming and requires programs that are consistent, co-ordinated and ongoing.
In our recent study published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, we show that measures to promote the labour-market integration of immigrants have three major shortcomings.
First, policy design and implementation are divided among people with different and sometimes divergent priorities : government agencies, community organizations, employers, unions, professional associations and so on.
Second, one of the assumptions underlying the policy of economic integration for immigrants is that current problems are mainly due to the inadequacy of labour supply - in other words, to the personal characteristics of newcomers. This is what accounts for the large number of programs focused on employability - resumé and interview preparation, familiarization with the local business culture, etc.
As well, employers are still reluctant to offer skilled and long-term jobs to immigrants. There are few programs aimed at breaking down this resistance.
A final constraint is underfunding, which results in strict quotas and restrictive eligibility criteria for the most effective programs. Such programs as internships and skill upgrading fall far short of meeting their intended goals. While more than 45,000 immigrants are admitted each year, only a tiny proportion benefit from such programs, and only for a limited period at that. Underfunding is also a major obstacle in integration efforts.
This month’s budget increases the money for immigration, but as the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes has pointed out, this increase barely matches the financial transfer that Quebec receives each year from the federal government under the Canada-Quebec accord on immigrant integration. Moreover, given the needs of immigrants - both those here and those who will be admitted this year (46,700 to 49,000, according to the Immigration Plan) - these amounts are clearly inadequate.
As Quebec debates whether to increase immigration, we think the answer depends on the integration policy that the Quebec government is prepared to adopt. While there are signs of good intentions, there is little evidence that a significant refocusing is taking place. The day when immigrants can enjoy the basic right to full equality in the job market is still far away.
Marie-Thérèse Chicha and Éric Charest are, respectively, professor and Ph.D. candidate at the École de Relations industrielles at the Université de Montréal. They are the co-authors of L’intégration des immigrés sur le marché du travail à Montréal : politiques et enjeux, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy.