Without immigration, Quebec, like the rest of Canada, would be condemned to rapid demographic decline. The latter doesn't necessarily have to mean economic catastrophe. But unless you've planned judiciously for a declining population by getting your financial house in order, or you're sitting on the world's biggest oil reserves outside of Saudi Arabia, a decline in wealth inevitably accompanies one in demography.
Quebec has neither healthy public finances nor oil wealth - despite the small group of eternal optimists that continues to believe thar's buckets of undiscovered black gold in the ground in the Gaspé. Based on the pretty solid assumption that there's not much oil there, Quebec likely needs many more immigrants if its economy is to prosper in the coming decades.
Will its current political leaders come to the same conclusion? The answer depends partly on the outcome of parliamentary hearings this fall on setting Quebec's immigration targets for the next three years. But mostly, it will hinge on whether or not a public commission struck by the government to defuse the issue of "reasonable accommodation" of ethnic and religious minorities deteriorates into a xenophobic backlash against "them" or reveals Quebeckers in their true, tolerant guise.
The politicians have done nothing to ensure the latter outcome emerges and everything to fan the flames of an explosive debate.
Action Démocratique du Québec Leader Mario Dumont set the stage for debate last month when he told La Presse: "Your number of immigrants should not exceed your capacity to welcome them and integrate them. Otherwise they create ghettos." On its own, there is truth to that statement. But coming from the mouth of a politician who has unabashedly capitalized on the insecurities of rural Quebeckers (i.e. those who rarely rub shoulders with immigrants), it is suspect.
Still, instead of ignoring Mr. Dumont's comment, as even La Presse almost did by burying it in a long profile, Liberal Premier Jean Charest chose to use it to paint his opponent as a xenophobe.
Unfortunately, the Premier, even when he's trying to sound like a leader, ends up looking like a political opportunist. So, instead of elevating the tone of the immigration discussion, his attack on Mr. Dumont simply smacked of cheap politics. As an opening volley, it did not augur well for the debate that will become the focus of Quebec politics this fall.
Quebec is the only province that chooses its own immigrants, with the exception of refugees and those who come to Canada to reunite with family members already here. The so-called economic immigrants - those selected by the Quebec government - now account for about 60 per cent of the 45,000 foreign-born newcomers the province takes in each year.
Immigration has risen dramatically since 2001. Before then, Quebec was taking in only about 27,000 newcomers each year, or barely 13 per cent of the Canadian total. A shift in policy starting in 2002, under the former Parti Québécois government, boosted the targets. Quebec now takes in about 18 per cent of Canada's 250,000 new immigrants each year, which is still below the province's 23.5 per cent share of Canada's population.
Still, despite a perception widely held in the rest of Canada, Quebec is one of the most multicultural jurisdictions in the world. Of course, multiculturalism is a strictly Montreal-area phenomenon. And compared to Toronto and Vancouver, where about half of the population is foreign-born, Montreal's 18-per-cent foreign-born contingent looks small. But in the global context, it's not. You cannot accept becoming a society that welcomes immigrants without also accepting that immigration will change your society. On the whole, Quebeckers have done that. Montreal is a model of racial harmony.
But Quebeckers' own struggle to ensure the survival of a French-speaking society in North America has always made this harmony a tenuous one. Immigrants still see English as the key to economic advancement, especially for their children.
Add to that the rising discomfort caused by Muslim immigrants seeking prayer spaces in public institutions, or Quebec-born Hassidic Jews asking the YMCA to install frosted windows to deliver their youth from temptation, and public discourse can degenerate pretty rapidly into one of "us" versus "them." Sure enough, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois last week told caucus members that the word "us" - as in old-stock Québécois - would no longer be banished from the party's lexicon.
Too bad. Because, like it or not, "us" now includes "them." The real question is not whether Quebec needs, and can integrate, more immigrants. It does and it can.
But can it retain them? Any Montreal primary school teacher can tell you that many, many immigrant students don't return in September because their parents have taken jobs or joined relatives in Toronto.
The politicians should be doing everything to stop this. Instead, they seem to be doing everything to encourage it.