Tom Mulcair: These are the ministers we need on the complex family reunification file

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The latest brushfire on the language and immigration front has begun, over the issue of family reunification. It’s unfortunate that something as basic and fundamentally human as reuniting families has become a political flashpoint.

Despite their opposing views at the outset of this skirmish, we’re blessed to have two of the smartest and best-equipped ministers in Ottawa and Quebec City stickhandling this tricky file.

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Provincial Immigration Minister Christine Fréchette is not the shoot-from-the-lip type. Unlike Simon Jolin-Barrette and Jean-François Roberge, she doesn’t seek political advantage from these emotional and sometimes divisive issues. She’s thoughtful, open and informed. The fact that she’s digging in her heels on this one should be read as a sign of the difficulties ahead.

Federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller continues to impress. He can be brutally candid, even at the expense of solidarity with colleagues. In his frank assessment of the gong show he inherited when he was handed the immigration portfolio last year, he showed a rare willingness to call a spade a spade.

Miller, like Fréchette, has an empathetic and progressive side to his political work. In his previous role with First Nations, he removed the logjam holding back indemnities to those who had suffered discrimination at the hands of the Canadian government. He made deals and settled legal cases. Ottawa paid out billions. He is strong and decisive with a good moral compass.

Fréchette had a background in business administration before entering politics. She has a great deal of expertise in international affairs and famously walked away from the Parti Québécois in 2014 because of her heartfelt opposition to its infamous Charter of Values. She simply quit her high-level job as then-international relations minister Jean-François Lisée’s deputy chief of staff knowing it was going to be a key element of the impending election campaign. She left with dignity. A rare combination of class and principle.

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Family reunification includes giving immigration authorizations to spouses. This is personally important to me. When Catherine and I got engaged 50 years ago, we had the certainty that she’d have her necessary papers to stay in Canada when we got married. Right now, in Quebec, it can take several years (and many tears) to get that authorization, which simply makes no human or public policy sense.

It interferes in people’s lives, but it’s also self-defeating. Reuniting with someone already here, who knows our society and its workings, is the best road to successful integration.

That said, it is going to be a battle royal. Quebec City will claim that Ottawa’s decision to allow more family reunifications than its own quotas would permit is a breach of the rules between the two orders of government. That is false, but it doesn’t mean that Quebec doesn’t have a point.

Yes, when the newest agreement on immigration was brought in several years ago, Ottawa jealously held onto authority over family reunifications. Quebec kept the big end of the stick for economic immigration categories. Unfortunately, that neat distinction no longer settles everything, as ballooning numbers of arrivals in all categories — including temporary workers, students and asylum seekers — have thrown everything out of whack.

Miller, of course, knows this. There is tremendous pressure on Justin Trudeau’s Liberals from well-established, and well-connected, cultural communities whose support they desperately need in the next election. Stalling reunifications is a great way to motivate people against you. They say that all politics are local. Nowhere is that more true than in the immigration file.

Premier François Legault seems to have been desperately seeking subjects on which he can disagree with Ottawa, the better to shore up his sagging popularity with nationalists. Quebec’s reputation can ill afford another self-inflicted black eye. Let’s hope the planned meeting between Trudeau and the premier can help find a human solution.

Tom Mulcair, a former leader of the federal NDP, served as minister of the environment in the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest.

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