The lost issue: Quebec’s critical need for migrants

Canada-Québec: la guerre permanente...

Amid the sturm und drang around Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois’s proposed charter of secularism last week, it is a curious fact that the issue of immigration and its critical importance for the province’s future got lost.
There was lots of talk about whether immigrants should have the right to wear religious symbols on the job if they work in the provincial public sector, but nothing about Quebec’s pressing need for educated, skilled young newcomers to replenish the shrinking labour pool of the native-born.
Of the two, the need for newcomers far, far outweighs the issue of religious symbols such as turbans, kippahs or head scarves.
For one thing, so few immigrants have been able to get work in Quebec’s public sector that most Quebecers could go years without ever seeing a civil servant wearing Sikh, Jewish or Muslim head coverings.
In 2008 the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations wrote that, based on Quebec Treasury Board figures, only 5.3 per cent of the province’s civil service was made up of people other than white French-Canadians. Considering that ethnic minorities, anglophones and aboriginal people made up more than 20 per cent of the population of Quebec in 2008, it is impossible not to conclude that bias in hiring was a serious problem.
Workplace bias against minority or immigrant populations is not confined to the civil service in Quebec: In 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, 11.1 per cent of newcomers to the province were unemployed compared with 6.6 per cent of native-born. This 4.5-per-cent gap was significantly wider than in neighbouring Ontario, where it was only 1.4 per cent, or in British Columbia, where it was 0.4 per cent.
Quebecers seem slow to grasp the importance of a steady influx of newcomers to the province. Although in 2009 the percentage of people age 65 and over was just 15 per cent, considered a manageable level, the province is “on the verge of an abrupt sea change,” according to a study by Desjardins Economic Studies. Within a little more than a decade, as the province’s large baby-boom generation turns 65, about a quarter of Quebec’s population will be over 65.
The province should be doing all it can to attract immigrants, not sending out a message that their welcome is contingent on how thoroughly they disguise anything that might distinguish them from the native-born.
Quebec, once the Canadian leader in attracting business and investor immigrants, is now just average among the provinces. According to Quebec government data, only 36.5 per cent of business immigrants who arrived between 1999 and 2008 were still in the province in 2010. (The rate of retention of skilled workers was much higher, at 80.1 per cent, and 87.1 per cent of immigrants admitted through the family-reunification program remained in the province.)
There is a danger that potential immigrants are watching the election campaign and thinking that they can use Quebec as a portal to the country but, given what is being said in the campaign, they wouldn’t want to live here. But immigrants play a critical role in Quebec’s economy, Quebec economists Pierre Fortin, Roger Ware and Pierre Emmanuel Paradis said in 2010. “They clearly create wealth for Quebec and Canada,” Paradis told La Presse. “They come here with money. They buy houses, set up their families, invest in business.”
Quebec needs skilled workers and entrepreneurs if it is to maintain and, better still, surpass its current economic vibrancy. It is not in the province’s interests to alienate the very people who can keep the province on an even keel as its population ages.

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