Toula Drimonis: Pinning the blame on immigrants, again

The opportunistic rhetoric by Quebec politicians must contend with reality: a low birthrate, aging population and punishing labour shortages.

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The CAQ government had barely tabled its immigration plan for 2024 and 2025 when, seeing cracks in Premier François Legault’s armour, Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon moved in with a strategic — albeit it disingenuous — jab.

“COMPLETELY IRRESPONSIBLE IMMIGRATION POLICIES: TOWARDS AN UNPRECEDENTED SOCIAL CRISIS”. This is how St-Pierre Plamondon reacted on X (formerly  Twitter) — yes, in CAPITAL LETTERS, in case people hadn’t grasped the horror of it all — to Quebec’s plan to welcome 50,000 new immigrants in 2024 and 50,000 more the following year. The numbers are in line with the status quo, but you wouldn’t know it from the PQ’s reaction.

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Accusing Legault of “lying to Quebecers,” PSPP insists the total is closer to 64,000 when one factors in Quebec Experience Program (PEQ) worker-students, even though they’re already here, housed and working. It’s fair game for opposition parties to call out the government if they feel voters have been misled. But the alarmist tone St-Pierre Plamondon used smacks of pure immigrant fear mongering.

It’s irresponsible — and misleading — to blame Quebec’s housing crisis, the increase in homelessness and shortfalls in education and health care as problems created by immigrants or temporary migrant workers. As if a three-year pandemic didn’t just happen. As if chronic underfunding in housing, education and health care aren’t uncontested facts.

Time and time again, I hear about Quebec’s infamous “capacity to welcome and integrate,” but every migration expert I’ve ever spoken to has always made two things clear — that magical number has never been defined; and capacity isn’t something that exists; it’s something we create.

Newcomers often spark anxiety about language and identity in Quebec, so some politicians find that politicizing immigration and treating it as a pesky problem pays dividends. But that opportunistic rhetoric has always had to contend with reality: our low birthrate, aging population and punishing labour shortages.

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Quebec’s demographics can best be summed up by “fewer births, more deaths.” Births are at a 15-year low in the province, while the number of deaths increased by 12 per cent in 2022. We bring in temporary workers by the thousands because our agricultural sector can’t survive without them, and then pretend to be shocked that they’re here. It’s deeply hypocritical.

The only reason Quebec’s population even grew at all is because of migration. So, immigrants are both instrumental to Quebec’s linguistic and cultural survival but also existential threats to it? Which is it?

Quebec spends millions in campaigns abroad recruiting immigrants. The number of temporary migrant workers more than doubled in the last five years because we can’t keep up with labour shortages but don’t want to increase immigration levels. Most Quebec immigrants are from skilled workers and economic immigration categories, bringing their youth, their drive and their money. Nonetheless, some stubbornly insist immigration isn’t a mutually beneficial transaction — even while les regions face worsening labour shortages, and the lack of employees cost Quebec’s small businesses some $11 billion in lost revenue in 2022.

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Yet despite the stigmatizing rhetoric, a recent survey shows concerns about immigrants’ integration have decreased considerably in Quebec over the years. And why not? Nearly one in four people in Canada are immigrants and the country is such an utter failure we repeatedly place at the top in the Best Countries rankings.

Immigrants remain an easy scapegoat. The goalposts and political language change, but the people to blame unsurprisingly always seem to remain the same.

There are ways for politicians to assert that immigration numbers must be accompanied by corresponding investments in infrastructure and integration to properly welcome newcomers without resorting to alarming language.

If, as St-Pierre Plamondon says, “there’s no link between the number of people we want to welcome and our level of openness,” then how we speak about them matters.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X (formerly Twitter) @toulastake

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