Weeks of emotional outpourings at the Bouchard-Taylor commission have fortunately not dissuaded the Charest government from setting an ambitious immigration target.
This week, Immigration Minister Yolande James outlined the government's goals: The target for 2008 is between 46,700 and 49,900 newcomers. "Quebec needs workers," James said. "We are talking about economic development and we must not forget the good things immigrants bring to Quebec."
When it comes to immigrants, Quebec couldn't do better than to adopt former U.S. president Bill Clinton's slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." We are suffering from an acute shortage of skilled workers, specifically in the construction, health-care and engineering sectors. In the next three years, said James, Quebec faces a shortage of 680,000 workers, 350,000 in Montreal.
The manpower shortage is in part a result of a sharp decrease in the number of Quebecers between the ages of 15 and 24, which has fallen by 25 per cent over the past 20 years.
Whatever its causes, the worker shortage has to be filled if the province is to continue to prosper. Already, more remote regions are struggling to maintain what have been considered minimal standards of public services in the face of steadily declining population.
This message - that Quebec's ability to thrive depends on maintaining its population and to do that it needs immigrants - should be communicated more forcefully to Quebecers at large.
In the weeks that the Taylor-Bouchard commission has been touring the province, an alarming amount of misinformation has been voiced on the theme of reasonable accommodation. Quebecers might ask themselves how many immigrants would want to come here after hearing such views.
More fruitful, surely, would be to make sure that the province provides the necessary integration support to immigrants, a sensible demand which Mario Dumont has made more than once. Quebec receives a great deal of money from the federal government to help settle immigrants here, but appears to divert substantial amounts to its general revenue fund. For the fiscal year 2005-2006, $83 million of the $172 million sent by Ottawa for this purpose appears to have gone to other uses. This has to stop.
It's worth noting, too, that despite the self-serving alarmism of Quebec's two opposition parties, the proportion of French-speaking immigrants to Quebec has gone up, from 35.6 per cent in 1996 to 57.7 per cent in 2006. This has to do in large part with deliberate efforts to attract francophones from, among other places, North Africa.
This leads us back to the anxiety expressed to the Taylor-Bouchard commission: French-speakers from Africa tend to be Muslim. Quebec needs, as much as workers, leadership to make the integration of immigrants work.