Montreal

Liberals want to create municipal immigration program, but Quebec could opt out

The Liberal Party of Canada has made a promise to help small, rural Quebec municipalities access more immigrant workers. But because the provincial government pledged to curb immigration in the province, even if the federal Liberals are elected, the program may never come to Quebec.

More immigrants in the regions could be part of the answer to Quebec's chronic labour shortage

Claude Morin, mayor of Saint-Georges, Que., says immigration has had a positive effect on his town. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

In Beauce, Que., the face of the region's largest town is changing.

Over the past five years, Saint-Georges, Que., has welcomed thousands of immigrants. After local officials tried and failed to address an acute labour shortage with local workers, it started looking abroad.

Now the town of 32,000 is booming.

"You go walking out here now, and people are speaking all languages," said Claude Morin, the mayor of Saint-Georges. "We are like Liechtenstein or something."

A local radio station has started playing an all-Spanish radio show after midnight. Morin says some seniors living in a nursing home saw people of different ethnicities for the first time when immigrants started working as orderlies.

He says the newcomers have integrated well.

"I see these guys. They feel like they are Beaucerons," he said. "They are very proud to be here."

But the labour shortage persists. In Quebec, there are some 120,000 vacant positions.

In Saint-Georges, there are "we're hiring" signs everywhere — they're stuck in storefront windows and to the sides of buildings. Morin says it is the most pressing problem facing the region.

The Liberal Party of Canada has made a promise to help small, rural municipalities like Saint-Georges access more immigrants. But because the provincial government pledged to curb immigration, the program may never come to Quebec even if the federal Liberals are elected.

The new program would be called the "municipal nominee program." It would mirror a similar provincial program.

Labour shortage a dire problem

A group that lobbies for Quebec business interests, the Conseil du patronat du Québec (CPQ), says labour shortage across the province is dire.

With more baby boomers set to retire, the problem is expected to get worse.

"This will be a very important challenge," said Louis Senécal, spokesperson for the CPQ.

The municipal nominee problem could be a tool to help mitigate that challenge.

The party platform doesn't offer many details, saying only that it would create a minimum of 5,000 spaces for such a program. That's a drop in the bucket of Canada's overall immigration numbers. Canada is set to see more than 330,000 immigrants in 2019.

But it could help smaller municipalities keep people from leaving. Immigration experts have been calling for such a program for years.

Colin Singer, an immigration lawyer, said a municipal program could be especially useful for small municipalities who don't want to lose their people to urban centres, such as Toronto or Montreal.

"There are many employers that cannot meet current demands, cannot grow," he said. "I'm pretty confident that the [municipal nominee program] is a good fine-tuning."

"I mean, we need it. We need people."

The catch in Quebec is that the promise doesn't jive with Quebec's goal to reduce immigration.

Rabeson Rajo Avotra, centre, stands with a group of workers from Madagascar and Mauritius who moved to rural Quebec to work. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

Despite clear need for workers, Quebec can opt out

When the Coalition Avenir Québec government was elected in 2018, it vowed to slash the number of economic immigrants allowed in Quebec.

The provincial government plans to reduce the number of immigrants by 20 per cent this year. That goal has drawn sharp criticism from business groups.

The Liberals say they would not — and could not — impose a municipal nominee program on Quebec. The province has unique ability to control economic immigration.

"Quebec is responsible for setting its own immigration levels, including the number of economic immigrants admitted each year," said Liberal spokesperson Eleanore Catenaro. 

"In the spirit of the Canada-Quebec Accord relating to immigration, any decision about the eligibility of communities to participate in this program is at the discretion of the province."

A spokesperson from Quebec's immigration ministry said it will not comment on federal election promises.

Immigration is 'not the perfect recipe'

Mayor Morin says his municipality doesn't necessarily want more responsibility when it comes to immigration. He worries a municipal nominee program would create more work for local bureaucrats.

Instead, he's asking the federal political parties to consider finding ways to make the immigration process faster, with less red tape.

"There's one thing they could do for sure: the paperwork. Try to accelerate the process," he said.

Senécal also says immigration can't be the only tool used to combat the labour shortage. It takes too long, is too complicated and is too costly for employers to rely on it regularly.

"Immigration is not the perfect recipe. It's not the magic solution," he said.

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