Nearly 45,000 immigrants came to Quebec in 2006, welcomed by a government well aware that labour shortages throughout the province will only get worse as Quebecers age and the birth-rate remains low.
But if the government was welcoming, the same cannot be said of a number of Quebecers. Their concern is not whether immigrants can find work, support themselves and add to the province's economic well-being, but whether they will assimilate into the French-speaking community.
The latest tempest in this stormy debate is the suggestion that immigrants who can't speak French are refusing to attend the free French classes offered by the province. Immigrants - but only immigrants - have the right to 33 weeks of French-language instruction. About 10,000 immigrants a year take these classes.
Critics of Quebec's high level of immigration point out that about a third of immigrants enrolled full-time in these language courses leave part-way through, usually to take up paid employment.
Wait a minute. Since when is a newcomer to be criticized for grabbing the first decent job that comes along? We want people in the workplace, don't we? We don't want to have to support them indefinitely while they master the niceties of the subjunctive. That, and other nuances, they can learn on the job, with a little help from their co-workers.
There is something else all those people so convinced that immigrants are too lazy to learn French should know: Knowing French is not the key to getting a job in Quebec. Last fall, Universite de Montreal sociologist Jean Renaud made public the findings of his exhaustive research into whether French was the "open sesame" to the Quebec workplace. Renaud pointed out that French-speaking North Africans, from Algeria and Morocco, did not have an easier time of landing a job than other immigrants. The key - for everyone - was having a network of contacts within the francophone population.
We are, however, certainly not arguing that French-language classes should be dropped or cut back. On the contrary, we have a question for those who profess deep concern for the state of French in Quebec: Why not expand the language training tenfold and throw it open to every single Quebecer who wants to improve his or her French? We're including allophones of all backgrounds as well as anglophones, whether from Quebec or the rest of Canada, and for that matter francophones, who are so often warned about poor standards of French in French schools.
This is an edited version of an editorial yesterday in The Gazette, Montreal.
Language of contention in Quebec
Knowing French is not the key to getting a job in Quebec