As the Quebec election campaign reached its final week, the outgoing Minister of Immigration, Francisation and Integration – who also serves as Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity – said “80 per cent of immigrants do not work, do not speak French.”

Later in the day, while disavowing his minister’s comments, Premier François Legault, argued that welcoming more than 50,000 immigrants would be “suicidal” for the Quebec nation. This followed his dubious conflation of immigrants with “bickering” and even “violence.”

Until early September, there was little talk of immigration in the run-up to the October 3 Quebec general election. But since then, the political and media machine has gone into overdrive.

Beyond the incendiary comments, what are the promises of the different parties?

We can compare the promises and their evolution on several aspects: the division of powers between Quebec and Ottawa, the right number of immigrants, the desired profile of immigrants, and the best places to settle immigrants in Quebec.

(For the purposes of this text, the authors reflect party statements as of September 28, 2022.)

Powers

Quebec has extensive selection and integration powers under a 1991 agreement with the federal government. On the question of the distribution of powers over immigration management, all the provincial parties want to increase Quebec’s powers – it is the extent of those increased powers and the justifications that vary.

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) has repeatedly called for a revision of the accord to have the province assume more power in areas such as family reunification, but has been less forceful during the campaign. The Parti Québécois (PQ) continues to emphasize that only sovereignty would give Quebec full control over its immigration. The Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) would like Quebec, rather than the federal government, to control the admission of temporary immigrants. In contrast, the Conservative Party of Quebec (CPQ) wants the province to take over all jurisdiction. Although a sovereigntist party, Québec solidaire (QS) hardly mentions control over immigration. Its program mentions a general “repatriation of federal powers.”

Behind these demands are broader power relations that must be considered between Ottawa and Quebec: will the next government be able to demand more control?

Immigration targets

The issue of targets has perhaps spilled the most ink after the PQ came out advocating for a reduction in the number of permanent immigrants admitted to Quebec to 35,000 per year. As recently as 2018, the PQ proposed “depoliticizing” the issue by leaving the numbers question to recommendations by the Auditor General of Quebec.

The CAQ prefers to maintain the current target level of 50,000 immigrants. It should be noted that in 2018, the CAQ was the only party promising to lower immigration levels, to 40,000. The PCQ did not put forward a figure, but called the CAQ proposal “acceptable.” Québec solidaire and the QLP each want an increase in the number of immigrants, to between 60,000-80,000 and 70,000 respectively.

This discussion obscures bigger issues: no party openly discusses the number of temporary immigrants, which has surged to 61,668 in 2019 from 12,671 four years earlier. Temporary workers represented 64 per cent of immigrants in 2019.

Who should come?

Which immigrants do the political parties want to see settle in the province? A common answer seems to be francophones. The PQ emphasizes that the criterion of French-language proficiency must be increased in the selection of both permanent and temporary immigrants, for example by limiting the proportion of allophone foreign students to 20 per cent of the total.

The PCQ emphasizes the “civilizational compatibility” of immigrants and their knowledge of French. The QLP and QS also emphasize the importance of French, while being more flexible than the CAQ, which stops providing government services in a language other than French six months after immigrants arrive following the adoption of Bill 96.

The issue of French language skills is a common theme in Quebec immigration policy. Should we select francophones beforehand (which leads to a preference for certain geographical areas) or people with an interest in learning French, or should we bet on teaching French after their arrival?

Where do they go?

For decades, the vast majority of immigration to Quebec has been concentrated in the Montreal region. The parties agree the distribution of immigrants should be spread across la belle province. All of them encourage the regionalization of immigration with incentives. One example of a shared policy is to give preference to those immigrants who want to settle or who have already settled in regions outside Montreal.

For example, the PQ, which has a target of having 50 per cent of admissions settle outside the Montreal area, would give priority to immigrants willing to settle there. QS also supports such prioritization. The QLP would consult the regions on their immigration needs. However, such measures have existed since the 1970s and have failed to deliver a broader distribution of settlement in Quebec.

The CAQ’s immigration record (it does not talk about)

Strangely, while immigration policy and rhetoric have received a lot of attention in this election campaign, one important aspect remains absent from the public debate: the CAQ’s record on immigration.

Why doesn’t the CAQ campaign on its achievements? It has been particularly active on issues related to immigration and more broadly to identity, as we show in two chapters of the book Bilan du gouvernement de la CAQ : Entre nationalisme et pandĂ©mie, edited by the team at Polimètre.

The values test was a divisive element of the 2018 campaign. Early in its mandate, the CAQ pushed through the test as a requirement for economic immigrants seeking permanent residency. While the CAQ could argue the test helps Quebec control permanent immigration to the province, the accomplishment is completely absent from the campaign. Was it only symbolic?

At the same time, while the premier has repeatedly raised the issue of the impact of immigration on social cohesion and the future of the French language, the CAQ’s achievements in francization and integration of immigrants are barely mentioned. The CAQ has expanded access to subsidized or even free francization for temporary immigrants, as well as access to integration support modules, measures that are quite progressive in the Canadian context. Why not highlight this massive investment in immigration? Is the CAQ afraid that its successes on immigration will displease its electoral base?

Also, the CAQ made little mention of the Legault government’s emphasis since 2018 on regionalizing immigration, which has resulted in a significant redeployment of field agents from the Ministry of Immigration, Francisation and Integration to the regions. The CAQ government also increased the budget for community organizations that support integration in the regions. It might be too early to assess the concrete impact of this investment, but few people are aware it has even taken place.

Even more surprisingly, the other parties rarely question the governing party on its record, preferring to focus the discussion on the issue of targets, or on the premier and his negative outbursts on immigration, without really getting into the concrete details of public policy achievements.

A few days before the vote, the parties have still not communicated detailed, concrete approaches to immigration beyond the debate about numbers and reacting to these jarring negative statements. As our recent book (Nouvelles dynamiques de l’immigration au QuĂ©bec) shows, immigration is central to the social, economic and linguistic future of Quebec. Enabling citizens to better understand how the different parties propose to manage this policy area and engage in constructive, evidence-based democratic debate should be a central concern for all parties.

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Catherine Xhardez
Catherine Xhardez is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal.
Adèle Garnier
Adèle Garnier is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at Université Laval.
Mireille Paquet
Mireille Paquet is associate professor in the Department of Political Science and holder of the Research Chair on the New Politics of Immigration at Concordia University.

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