OTTAWA — Quebec business leaders say newly re-elected Premier François Legault will have no choice but to accept more than 50,000 immigrants per year — a target the premier has said would be “suicidal” for the province’s French culture.
“Unless you want to downsize your economy and you’re ready to let go of some companies and even some regions (in Quebec), … you have no other way than to increase integration levels,” said Véronique Proulx, president and CEO of Quebec Manufacturers & Exporters.
Proulx said her organization published a survey last year showing that manufacturers in Quebec have left the equivalent of $18 billion on the table because of labour shortages.
“Why $18 billion? Because we’re refusing contracts, we’re letting go customers that have been with us for years, we’re downsizing our operations. We’re cutting down on night shifts and weekend shifts because we just can’t find the workers we need,” she explained.
The issue of immigration has been at the forefront of the latest spat between Ottawa and Quebec, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refusing to give more powers to the province to decide who gets in, and Legault refusing to take no for an answer.
Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec was re-elected on Oct. 3 with a larger majority, promising to restrict immigration levels in order to protect Quebec society.
Legault himself said, just days before the election, that welcoming more than 50,000 immigrants per year would be “a bit suicidal.” He made the comment after he had just apologized for linking immigration with “extremists” and “violence” in explaining why levels have to remain the same.
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Federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, a Quebec MP whose family immigrated from Argentina, has openly said he considered the comments to be hurtful but said he was encouraged to hear Legault say in his victory speech that he would “be the premier of all Quebecers.”
But the main point of contention remains between the CAQ and the business community on the number of immigrants.
Charles Milliard, CEO of the Federation of chambers of commerce of Quebec, said that certain gaps in the labour market can be filled with handicapped workers or retirees coming back to the labour market, but it will never be sufficient to fill the massive labour shortage.
“Quebec cannot continue to have 271,000 vacant positions right now,” he said.
Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, predicts that the Quebec premier will backtrack on his campaign promise.
“I think that over the next few years, this government will increase immigration levels. And why will they do that? Partly because there will be a strong demand from all over the place and also because with proper funding, we will successfully integrate immigrants,” he said.
Leblanc noted that the CAQ was elected on a promise, four years ago, of decreasing the number of immigrants to 40,000 in Quebec. The CAQ is now saying they will not go above 50,000. “So in effect, they changed (their position) over the last four years,” he said.
We’re refusing contracts, we’re letting go customers that have been with us for years, we’re downsizing our operations
Business leaders are reassured by the fact that allies in Legault’s previous cabinet — Pierre Fitzgibbon (Economy and Innovation) and Eric Girard (Finance) — will likely be reappointed on Oct. 20, when the premier will present his new cabinet.
“They are allies, clearly,” said Leblanc. And I suspect that they have a job of explaining to their colleagues the dynamics of wealth creation, business development, the necessity to have the workforce there when businesses need them.”
Businesses can also count on the federal government, which is siding with them on the issue.
Speaking with reporters last week, Trudeau referred to the severe labour shortage in Quebec, and said that “we know that it will take more immigration but this is a conversation to have with Premier Legault.” He also reiterated Quebec has all the tools it needs to choose its immigrants.
Under the Canada-Quebec Accord, in place since 1991, Quebec assumes full responsibility for the selection of its economic immigrants while Ottawa still takes care of family reunification and refugees. But Legault is now hoping to have full control over the immigration file.
Robert Asselin, senior vice president of policy for the Business Council of Canada and former adviser to Trudeau, thinks the federal government should not budge on this file.
“There is no G7 country which would yield the full responsibility of immigration to a federated state,” he said. “It’s an important part of the sovereignty of a country to control its immigration.”
“The Canada-Quebec Accord is a good deal, a good framework. We shouldn’t go any further.”