Quebec’s new government wants to reduce immigrants. Can its economy afford it?

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In a speech last month, former prime minister Jean Chrétien said Canada "needs immigrants," adding that his "problem with immigration" as a former leader was that he couldn't attract enough immigration.

When François Legault’s government takes power in Quebec next week, it will do so with a platform many have called racist and xenophobic.

Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec campaigned on promises to slash the number of immigrants coming into the province and to force them to take tests assessing their knowledge of the French language and of the values outlined in Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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CAQ also pledged to ban certain public employees — including teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing religious symbols at work. The crucifix at the legislature will, however, stay.

Those stances have not softened since the party won a majority mandate with 74 ridings earlier this month. But what happens if Quebec follows through with its policies? Should the rest of Canada, which is certainly not immune to anti-immigrant sentiment, brace for more?

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The reality is that Canada needs immigrants, says Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“Right now, the fastest-growing issue among our members is the shortage of labour,” he says. “Not just skilled positions, but increasingly semi-skilled positions and trade positions and even unskilled workers are in hot demand in many markets across the country, particularly — strangely enough — in Quebec.”

And while that doesn’t mean every independent business owner shares the same view on how best to approach immigration, Kelly says that most agree that increasing immigration is “at least part of the solution.”

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Per the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of Quebec, the province will need to find 100,000 workers to meet its labour force needs in the next decade, a struggle given roughly 7,000 Quebecers move out of the province each year and fewer move in.

Legault has trotted out those departures as a reason not to boost immigration, saying during his campaign, “I know that you’re maybe tired to hear this figure, but 26 per cent of new immigrants leave Quebec in the first 10 years, so this is not a success.”

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Legault has vowed to reduce the number of immigrants coming to the province from 50,000 down to 40,000 in 2019.

But Kelly worries that as asylum seekers coming over the border test Canadians’ tolerance for immigration, the rest of the immigration system will be caught in the crossfire. Asylum seekers are certainly a hot button issue that needs addressing, he says, but “I hope we don’t get distracted by that and then just start to crack down on all parts of the immigration system.”

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Yet, as Elliot Tepper, a political science professor emeritus at Carleton University, explains, politics make it very easy to get distracted.

“The long-term polling on this issue shows that Canadians generally will be content to accept the current level of immigration but are resistant to an increased level without having any idea of what the current level actually is,” he says.

“It suggests there is toleration within the broader Canadian public unless the issue is raised as part of political campaigns.”

Enter, CAQ.

“We are concerned about the CAQ election because they have been trying to divide Quebecers into real Quebecers and immigrants,” said Scott Weinstein of the Independent Jewish Voices, one of several groups that joined thousands of Montrealers in a rally last week against Legault’s planned policies.

Fear mongering, Tepper says, is a much easier path to governance than “appeals to enlightened self-interest.”

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That’s been made quite clear in the United States, where President Donald Trump rose to power with an anti-immigrant platform. In Quebec, immigration turned into a ballot box issue in part because the bulk of asylum seekers using unauthorized crossings to Canada have entered via Quebec. Of the more than 9,000 people who have come so far this year, 90 per cent arrived through Quebec.

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Border crossers were just the trigger, Tepper says. Quebec’s immigration concerns are wrapped up in longer-standing issues: worries about preserving the francophone population and worries about maintaining its percentage of the population as Canada’s demographics shift.

Quebec’s unique concerns are part of why the rest of Canada shouldn’t see the CAQ election as an indication of what’s to come elsewhere.

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“We should not feel we are immune,” Tepper cautions, highlighting MP Kellie Leitch, who failed in her bid for Conservative leadership but became infamous over a proposal to screen all newcomers for Canadian values.

“The assumption that being anti-immigrant is a path to power has not been borne out by recent Canadian experience.”

What support for CAQ’s immigrant reduction plans in Quebec do highlight is a disconnect between labour market analysis and people’s actual responses, says Monica Heller, an anthropology professor at the University of Toronto whose research region includes Francophone Canada.

“Labour market analysis and responses to it are based on a kind of rational choice model,” she says. Do we want our economy to grow? OK, we need this many workers in this many fields, find them and get them working.

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But, Heller says, “We don’t always act rationally.”

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Change can be hard. It can feel threatening to have to work with new people with different life experiences and different training, she says. Even if you’re someone working in a field with labour shortages, she says, you can worry about losing some sense of control by virtue of the fact that your value decreases when there are more people doing the same work.

“The challenge is always opening up a conversation which allows you to get to the people who don’t want to have that conversation and allows you to get to what’s the underlying fear,” Heller says. Is it loss of status? Privilege? Control?

Surmounting those fears is hard, she says.

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“It’s a combination of working at, how do we all actually benefit by diversifying who we’re living with? How do we build a shared frame that we can all understand?”