VERDUN, Quebec — As cultural coordinator for a resource center for new
Quebecers, Gabriel Garcia is leading an effort to bridge the gap between
the growing number of immigrants here and the mostly French-speaking
society into which they have moved.
But one issue is proving to be a bridge too far for the province’s
first-generation immigrant population: the long struggle for independence.
“I realize it is important for many,” said Mr. Garcia, who mainly works
with people from Central and South America, voicing a sentiment shared by
almost all the recent immigrants. “But for me, sovereignty is not my
The number of immigrants entering Quebec each year has nearly doubled
since the last referendum on independence in 1995 failed by a razor-thin
margin, and immigrants now represent more than 10 percent of the
That rapidly expanding demographic consists of people who have no
historical stake in the traditional French-English divide. The evolving
society is one of many challenges facing the political vehicle of the
separatist movement, the Parti Québécois, after the resignation on May 8 of
the party’s leader, André Boisclair.
Mr. Boisclair, 41, became increasingly unpopular during his 18 months at
the party’s helm, especially after elections in March when the Parti
Québécois finished in third place, its worst showing in more than 30
Although French-speaking Quebecers continue to form a clear majority of
the population, the growing number of immigrants, along with a greatly
reduced birthrate, point to a shift that is forcing political parties,
separatist and federalist, to rethink their political foundations.
“Immigrants who come from outside during their adult life choose Canada,”
said Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the University of Montreal.
“They’ve immigrated to Canada, and those who choose sovereignty are a
relatively limited number.”
One such immigrant is Aymar Missakila. He came to Quebec from the Congo
Republic in 1994, just as tensions were building in the period before a
referendum on independence the next year.
Having come from a politically unstable country, Mr. Missakila said that
at the time he did not understand why a province whose economy and social
programs seemed strong would want to separate from the rest of Canada.
“I understand fighting for a bigger role for Quebec, but I don’t believe
sovereignty is the issue,” said Mr. Missakila, 35, who works at a
race-relations organization in Montreal. “Many immigrants think a sovereign
Quebec would not be good for the economy, the health care system and
But economists say Quebec has little choice but to embrace the immigrants
because of a plummeting native birthrate that would otherwise reduce
economic growth. Even with a birthrate well below the rate of replacement,
Quebec’s population grew 4.3 percent from 2001 to 2006, to 7.5 million.
“Quebec has gone from having the highest birthrate in the country to one
of the lowest in one generation, so any growth in the work force is going
to come from new Quebecers,” said Glen Hodgson, chief economist at the
Conference Board of Canada, a nonprofit group in Ottawa. “How far is Quebec
willing to go to accommodate those new to Quebec?”
Some contend that replacing Mr. Boisclair will allow the Parti Québécois
to revive itself. But changing demographics and more accepting attitudes
toward the rest of Canada suggest that the Parti Québécois will have a
difficult time swaying a majority of voters in favor of independence.
“We may be finding that the P.Q. was the party of a generation,” said
Jocelyn Létourneau, a professor at Laval University in Quebec and the
author of “What Do the Québécois Really Want?”
“Those who grew up in the 1960s,” she (sic) said, “they had this project,
independence, which they now have a hard time selling to the majority of
Instead, an upstart party, the Action Démocratique du Québec, emerged in
the March election, making an ambiguous promise of greater autonomy for
Quebec within Canada. That pledge, paired with a mostly right-wing
platform, pushed the party into second place, close behind the provincial
governing party, the federalist Liberal Party.
The reshaped political landscape poses an interesting situation for the
conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper. A weakened independence
movement and a possible ally in the Action Démocratique du Québec mean
that, for the first time, federalist politicians in Ottawa have a potential
alliance of parties in Quebec to counter the Parti Québécois.
“We have a federalist government in Quebec City, and we have an official
opposition that doesn’t want a referendum,” Mr. Harper told reporters. “So
obviously we will look forward to working with the government of Quebec.”
Immigrants Reject Quebec’s Separatists