French and values tests not the way to integrate newcomers, Quebec immigrants say

Quebec's next premier says he'll go ahead with plans to reduce immigration levels by 20 per cent and test newcomers on their values and French skills, but newcomers and their advocates say it's the wrong approach.

Premier-designate confirms plan to cut immigration 20% next year

Perrine Dhenin, who immigrated from France two years ago, said it's a mistake to think immigrants have values that are somehow regressive or incompatible with those of Quebecers. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

Newcomers to Quebec and their advocates say the premier-designate is taking the wrong approach to integrating immigrants, after François Legault said he will proceed next year with Coalition Avenir Québec's plan to cut immigration levels by 20 per cent.

At his first news conference as incoming premier, Legault confirmed Tuesday that his government will go ahead with the Coalition Avenir Québec's immigration program, including its plan to subject recent immigrants to French-language and values tests.

Christian Nana, an immigrant from Cameroon, said Legault's proposed tests could frighten people considering moving to Quebec.

"The French tests are already there," Nana said, suggesting those who don't pass will leave the province for English-speaking provinces — regardless of government policy.​

Legault said throughout the campaign that those who do not pass those tests would have to leave Quebec, though he was vague about how a CAQ government would enforce that.

Quebec admitted a little over 50,000 immigrants last year, a figure which includes those who came to the province through refugee and family reunification programs administered by the federal government.

Quebec's premier-designate, François Legault, says his government will reduce immigration levels by 20 per cent next in 2019. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Legault said he would cut that number to 40,000 and take steps to ensure more new arrivals learn French and find jobs. According to a 2017 Statistics Canada report, 80.5 per cent of immigrants in Quebec said they are able to conduct a conversation in French.

French immersion versus French test

Luis Miguel Cristancho says that while there are problems with the integration of immigrants, the way Legault believes those problems can be solved is all wrong.

"It's creating more division," said Cristancho of the CAQ program.

Cristancho runs Bienvenue à Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, a non-profit agency that helps newcomers integrate into the western Montreal neighbourhood.

Bienvenue à NDG's director, Luis Miguel Cristancho, says the key to integrating newcomers in Quebec is helping them find opportunities to work in French and offering other supports to help them succeed. (CBC)

He noted that once immigrants pass a French-language test, they can go back to living and working in their own language.

"What we want to see is people having opportunities to work in French and having proper support in order to succeed," he said.

'It's a diverse country'

Legault also said Tuesday he would invoke the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to prevent those in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols such as turbans and hijabs.

The CAQ wants to pass a secular charter that would go further than the Quebec Liberals' religious neutrality law, which is already being challenged in the courts. 

Shahad Salman, a lawyer and human rights advocate, said such a law will limit the capacity of religious minorities "to be fully active in society."

"Recent history is really repeating itself," she said, referring to the charter proposed by the Parti Québécois in 2013.

Perrine Dhenin, a hijab-wearing volunteer French teacher at Bienvenue à NDG, challenges the CAQ's assumption that many immigrants have values that are somehow regressive or incompatible with those of most Quebecers.

"It's a diverse country. Perhaps that scares some people," said Dhenin, who moved from Paris with her husband in January 2016.

"Everything that is happening in France regarding secularism — the veil, the burka: we're increasingly hearing the same thing here."

Dhenin says the students in her French-language class at Bienvenue à NDG are eager to learn because they are determined to find work and integrate into Quebec society. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

France has banned the hijab, which covers the hair, in elementary and high schools, and has banned the burka, which covers the full face and body, from the public entirely.

Dhenin says it's wrong to assume Muslim women who wear a religious veil are forced into the practice, and bans on outward religious symbols further isolate these women and prevent them from entering the workforce — something newcomers are eager to do, she insists.

The students she teaches at the centre are enthusiastic, which helps them progress quickly, Dhenin says.

Cristancho said Legault needs to understand what motivates immigrants to come to Quebec.

"We come here because we recognize that it's a better place, a better quality of life," he said.

"We don't come here to set up ghettos or something like that. We want to really succeed and be accepted."

With files from Sudha Krishnan, Julia Page and CBC Montreal's Daybreak


Colin Harris


Colin Harris is a journalist with CBC in Montreal.