Allison Hanes: Why are fewer Quebecers moving to Montreal?

The drop in transplants from other regions may be deepening the chasm — real or imagined — between the metropolis and the rest of Quebec.

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It was once almost a rite of passage: young Quebecers who grew up in the suburbs, small towns or distant regions moving to Montreal to study or seek their fortune.

While here, they live alongside students from other regions, provinces and countries, among immigrants and with lifelong Montrealers.

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Many stay permanently, while others leave for greener pastures once they start families. But this youthful cohort helps give Montreal much of its energy and verve. That’s partly why there’s such great nightlife, why it’s recognized as one of the world’s best cities to study in, why it’s a bubbling hive of innovation and creativity.

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But the Institut de la statistique du Québec has found the number of young adults from the rest of the province moving to Montreal has been declining for two decades. And as La Presse revealed last week, it hit a new low in 2022-23. Only 9,300 Quebecers between the ages of 15 and 29 moved to the city last year, less than half of the 23,300 who came in 2001-02. The rate of 30- to 59-year-olds settling in Montreal from other regions has followed a similar downward trajectory.

In fact, the ISQ found the level of Quebecers moving between any regions was lower last year than at any other time since it started keeping track in 2001-02. Only 174,900 people changed regions in 2022-23, a reduction of 15 per cent from 2021-22 and 24 per cent from 2020-21. Those higher numbers were, of course, part of the urban exodus that accompanied the pandemic. As white-collar workers were unshackled from their offices and in search of more space (inside and out) during lockdown, Quebecers decamped to smaller towns in droves.

The ISQ didn’t pinpoint the cause for this marked decline in overall inter-regional mobility, noting the economic context and the dust-settling after the mass pandemic migration. But it did suggest the housing affordability and availability crisis could be a new factor. Between high interest rates, low supply, sluggish construction starts and rising rents in most regions of Quebec, “people who might have wished to change their place of residence might have found it impossible.”

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In other words, more people may be staying put by circumstance or necessity rather than by choice.

But back to Montreal …

Montreal typically sees more exits than arrivals among established residents — i.e., Quebecers. But the departures are replenished by newcomers from other provinces and countries — i.e., immigrants. So Montreal’s population is not shrinking. However, its demographics are changing, especially with an unprecedented number of temporary immigrants, including foreign workers, asylum seekers and international students.

The fresh arrivals taking up residence in the city undoubtedly contribute to the incredible vitality and diversity of the Montreal mosaic. But the drop in transplants from other regions may be deepening the chasm — real or imagined — between Montreal and the rest of Quebec.

You don’t have to look far to find a certain narrative being peddled that some Quebecers no longer feel like they belong in Montreal. Among the complaints: there’s too much English, it’s not French enough, there’s no appreciation of Québécois culture. There’s a lot of hand-wringing that the Québécois identity is not reflected in Montreal — at least among those who view multiculturalism negatively and think francophone culture should be dominant.

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At what point does this become a self-fulfilling prophesy if Quebecers from outside the city stop moving to Montreal?

Besides that, there’s a perception that Montreal is dirty, chaotic, unsafe, congested and cluttered with orange cones. (OK, the latter may be true given the endless road construction.) If someone is reading or hearing about it from afar, the city certainly doesn’t sound very inviting, whether to visit or to live.

The Quebec government feeds these ideas as well.

During the last election campaign, then-immigration minister Jean Boulet, now the labour minister, told an audience out in the regions that “80 per cent of immigrants go to Montreal, do not work, do not speak French or do not adhere to the values of Quebec society.” He was later forced to apologize.

Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault lamented last fall that the rest of Quebec is sick of paying for public transit in Montreal, a service they don’t use.

Premier François Legault has blamed Montreal’s English universities for “anglicizing” the city, especially downtown Montreal, and his government imposed a 33 per cent tuition hike for out-of-province students along with new requirements for them to learn French. These measures are helping shoo away young people from the rest of Canada who might have applied to McGill and Concordia.

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A host of Coalition Avenir Québec officials also ganged up on Mayor Valérie Plante for not doing enough to promote French after she denounced the tuition policy for hurting Montreal.

A poll by Léger and the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton firm for the Association des SDC de Montréal found 30 per cent of francophone respondents steer clear of certain Montreal areas when they shop, like Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, because they expect to be unable to get service in French.

Perhaps it’s not surprising for a government brought to power by the suburbs and regions to amplify differences with the city, but it’s self-defeating.

Montreal is North America’s only francophone metropolis. French is what makes it special. It’s a welcoming city, whether someone is coming from Venezuela, Vancouver or Val-d’Or. Cultural and linguistic diversity are nothing new, from the Irish who first arrived serving in the French military, to the historic anglophone and Jewish communities, to the waves of newcomers from around the globe who now call Montreal home.

Everyone loves Montreal — except, perhaps, the rest of Quebec.

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