Quebec wants more immigration powers from Ottawa, but does it really need them?

Source: 
CTV News

Cindy Sherwin CTV News Oct. 11, 2022

Even though Canada's prime minister has repeatedly shut the door, Francois Legault keeps on knocking, intent on winning more control over immigration from the federal government.

As with many past leaders in Quebec, it's been a regular refrain of his, dating back well before the provincial election on Oct. 3.

But is there substance to the claim that Quebec needs more autonomy on immigration?

Or, does Quebec already have all the control it requires to ensure as many immigrants as possible speak French, which the premier has said is his main preoccupation?

"The fact that political parties in Quebec all want more power in immigration is not surprising," said Martin Papillon, a political science professor at Université de Montréal.

"It's an area of politics and policy, where, historically, Quebec governments have been very proactive […] seeking to assert their identity."

However, Quebec already has a fair bit of independence on immigration issues compared to other provinces, he said, the result of "an asymmetrical arrangement" negotiated in 1991.

"And I have to say, and this is not something that the Quebec government or the CAQ or Francois Legault likes to talk about -- it's a pretty good deal that they got."

A 'VERY GOOD' FUNDING DEAL WITH OTTAWA

Papillon describes the funding arrangement between the two levels of government as a win for Quebec, singling out the section that calls on Ottawa to pay for integration services in the province.

The funding formula "is based on a fixed percentage of the total amount that the federal government is budgeting for immigration for its own integration program, no matter the percentage of immigrants that are actually going to Quebec," he said.

Since Quebec has been selecting fewer immigrants than its share of the population, "about 13 per cent," according to Papillon, "Quebec has a very good deal in terms of funding its program."

Just two days after the provincial election, federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez told reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons that the province has the power to select up to 28 per cent of its immigrants.

"Which means there is another [percentage] that Quebec could choose that would be entirely francophone," he said.

CTV News asked the Quebec government to confirm the figures.

According to Ministry of Immigration, Francisation and Integration spokesperson Arianne Méthot, Quebec selected and admitted only 70 per cent of the proportion of immigrants permitted in 2018 and 2019.

“In 2020 and 2021, this proportion dropped to around 60 per cent due to the effects of the health crisis,” Méthot wrote in an email.

From January to August 2022, the proportion subject to Quebec selection rose to 73 per cent. 

With Rodriguez pointing out publicly that Quebec is not taking full advantage of the selection powers it already has, Papillon suggested that the province’s push to reopen the deal with Ottawa could backfire, perhaps on the financial front.

“The federal government can very easily say okay…but either you increase your immigration targets to sort of balance it out, or, we change the funding. That's an interesting side question that is not often debated,” Papillon said.

ECONOMIC IMMIGRATION, REFUGEES, AND FAMILY REUNIFICATION

There's not much leeway for Quebec when it comes to the general area of permanent economic immigration, which is now largely controlled by the province, said Papillon.

"Its priorities and its targets and the requirements for French, for example, this is all in Quebec's hands. So that wouldn't change," he said.

The next category, refugee claimants, wouldn't provide Quebec with any greater powers either, he said, since it's heavily regulated by federal law and international covenants.

Francois Legault has also argued for more autonomy over those who come to Quebec through the family reunification channel.

At the end of May 2022, in a pre-election speech at a CAQ party convention, he said it's estimated that half of them don't speak French, and called that a threat to Quebec.

But Quebec already plays a role here as well, because it's the province that establishes the conditions for sponsoring a family member, which includes the need for the family established in Quebec to demonstrate a financial capacity to help support the new arrivals, according to Papillon.

Daniel Beland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, agrees that emphasizing the family reunification program is "misguided."

"I'm not sure that Quebec should spend that much energy fighting over this," Beland said. "It's not the smartest way to use your political capital."

First, it wouldn't be a useful area of immigration to control because family reunification brings in a relatively small number of people every year, he said, and therefore wouldn't help protect the French language in a meaningful way.

On top of that, "increasing French requirements for family members coming here, that would kind of run counter to the very basic principle of family reunification, which is, it's not about your capacity to contribute immediately, it's a humanitarian type of immigration," Papillon added.

And issues that are tied to "human rights" and "foreign policy" are not things the federal government wants to give away, said Beland.

"I do think that is highly political because Francois Legault's brand of nationalism is really about gaining more autonomy for Quebec," he said, adding that the premier is under pressure from the Parti Quebecois, for example, to actively confront the issue.

TEMPORARY FOREIGN WORKERS

The only areas where Legault could make headway practically speaking, said Beland, is on the subject of "temporary foreign workers and helping immigrants to learn French -- those who are already here."

He thinks it could be possible to work out a new deal with the federal government or improve the current agreement. And unlike Papillon, he surmised that more funding could be on the table.

"Maybe they want more money from Ottawa to help the Francization of immigrants. Sometimes you ask a lot and in the end, as long as you come back home with something -- it might not be what you asked for in the beginning, but you can still frame that as a victory," he said.

There probably is some "wiggle room" when it comes to temporary immigration, "if the federal government is going to budge, it's probably there," Papillon concurred.

But again, he wonders what Legault would ask for. "What kind of criteria would you add to the temporary aspect of immigration is not clear to me," since it would be difficult to ask a worker coming here on a temporary visa to have a basic knowledge of French, he said.

Language requirements exist for foreign students, and Papillon said Quebec already has the authority to act when temporary foreign workers or students want to stay in Quebec and become permanent residents after their temporary visa expires.

The requirements are laid out by the Quebec Experience Program and include a certain level of proficiency in French.

"I mean, this is the big untold story of this whole thing is that really, more than 60 per cent of people that are coming in Quebec […] are coming with a temporary immigration visa, as temporary workers, as students, so it's more than half," said Papillon.

"But the truth is, I think Quebec already has enough authority to act on this. So it's not clear to me why they would want more power other than [for] symbolic politics" and the general idea of seeking more autonomy, he said.

That doesn't mean we won't see Ottawa open the door to discussions with Quebec at some point, said Papillon, particularly as the federal election approaches, given the issue's sensitivity in the province.

"The [federal] Liberals cannot take for granted their votes in Quebec anymore in the current landscape, so it'll be interesting," said Papillon. "The politics of it may shift in the next year."