Robert Libman: Asylum seekers raise uncomfortable questions for Quebec

As the CAQ makes demands on Ottawa, the PQ should explain how an independent Quebec would handle the challenges, and costs, on its own.

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Four Quebec cabinet ministers were poking at the federal government ATM this week trying to withdraw $1 billion. The Coalition Avenir Québec government representatives held a news conference saying Quebec needs the funds from Ottawa to address a brewing “humanitarian crisis” because health care, education and other services have reached a breaking point due to increasing numbers of asylum seekers, which is federal responsibility.

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The number of temporary immigrants in Quebec, including asylum seekers, has dramatically increased from 86,000 in 2016 to 528,000 in 2023. As of Dec. 31, Quebec had taken in 55 per cent of asylum seekers out of Canada’s total of 289,047 compared to Ontario’s 36.5 per cent.

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Quebec’s concerns are not without merit as our social services, health care, education and housing sectors are already unable to satisfy minimum standards or demand. They claim that Ottawa hasn’t done enough to share in the disproportionate costs to the province of integrating these newcomers or in settling them elsewhere as the feds had initially started doing.

This issue is feeding grain to Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, who has been hammering the CAQ government for its inability to get results out of Ottawa. “They will continue going there on their knees and coming back with crumbs”, he told reporters.

The irony of his remarks shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

Quebecers contribute tax dollars to the federal government but Quebec currently gets back well in excess of its share via transfer payments and equalization as a “have-not” province. That is a benefit of being part of a larger federation — allowing the ATM to spew out funds when justified, above and beyond the balance in one family member’s account.

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If Quebec were independent — with full control over immigration, borders and taxation — how would it specifically handle this “humanitarian crisis”? How would it cover the costs?

PSPP, who likes to repeat what a welcoming society we are, should be asked how he would shield our borders from asylum seekers or temporary immigrants who choose Quebec. An independent Quebec wouldn’t be able to shake down Ottawa for $1 billion or ask that asylum seekers be distributed among other provinces.

It’s facile for PQ poll numbers to surge in opposition, when the party leader can criticize but needn’t provide answers. Here is a particular issue with which Premier François Legault could turn the tables on his PQ nemesis and challenge him to clearly compare how repatriated tax dollars or immigration powers would compensate and address this complex issue.

The issue also brings to light the choice that Quebec is facing:

Language commissioner Benoît Dubreuil noted that 40 per cent of asylum seekers had no knowledge of French, which is also fuelling this panic in the government. French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge said Quebec’s very identity could be threatened by too many asylum seekers.

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The threat of a “humanitarian crisis” here, compounded by language fears, continues to reinforce the paradigm that newcomers are a burden. But the only way to address the shortage among teachers and health care and construction workers — to be able to respond to the needs of a growing population — is to bring in more people. It’s a vicious circle.

Where else to draw workers than from the pool of immigrants and asylum seekers who want to come here?

Will the priority be language or other needs?

Language aside, as part of the Canadian federation, we can share and distribute resources and responsibility more effectively, which wouldn’t exist if Quebec were on its own.

If, in fact, Quebec’s numbers are correct, the feds must do their part and compensate the province to help face the realities of integrating these newcomers. Otherwise, the likes of PSPP will continue to feed off the issue to the detriment of the federalist cause.

Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. X @robertlibman

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