Quebec's immigration debate is out of whack with province's youth

Quebec's politicians are spending a lot of time worrying that newcomers are not fitting in. The province's youth have moved on to the next question: what are we going to do together.

As the main parties wring their hands over integration, young people are moving on to the next question

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, left, shakes hands with CAQ Leader François Legault as PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée, centre, looks on. All three parties have waded into the immigration debate, but the province's youth don't seem all that interested in the discussion. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

If you'd been hoping that Quebec's political parties would simply pass by the immigration debate on their way to the Oct. 1 election, then the last few days have probably been rough. 

Last week, the news magazine L'actualité revealed the Coalition Avenir Québec — leading right now in most opinion polls — had prepared a 17-page campaign document outlining its immigration policy.

It included proposals to require immigrants to pass a values and language test, or face being reported to Canadian immigration officials. The party also reiterated its promise to cut immigration rates by 20 per cent, to 40,000 per year.

Both the document, and the reaction of the CAQ's rivals, foreshadows how the immigration issue will play out on the campaign trail. 

The Liberal response, as it has been for months, is to make what philosophers call an instrumentalist argument in favour of immigration.

It is foolish, they say, to reduce immigration rates when Quebec is facing a labour shortage that is threatening to limit its economic growth.  

This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the intrinsic value of diverse societies, but it does have the merit of responding to the concerns of economists as well as employers.

The Parti Québécois' criticisms of the CAQ plan were also not based on the moral case for more immigration.

Party Leader Jean-François Lisée derided it as largely impractical, doubting whether Ottawa would actually deport an immigrant who had failed a provincial language test.

Where they overlap

The underlying concern that seems to be informing the CAQ's proposals is the integration of immigrants into Quebec society.

"The newcomer ... in choosing Quebec, has to commit to learning the French language and adhere to fundamental Quebec values," the party's campaign document reads. 

And on these two points there is not much argument from the Liberals or the PQ.

Not only do they also see language as an effective tool for bolstering integration, all three main parties appear to share the fear that immigrants will cling to foreign values, and in doing so, disrupt Quebec's social fabric.

This fear is manifest in things such as the Liberals' religious neutrality law (Bill 62), which seeks to limit the presence of religious symbols in the public space.

Protesters opposing Bill 62 and racism march during a demonstration in Montreal, November 2017. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

If elected, Lisée has promised to extend those limits even further, and would bar police officers from wearing the hijab, for example.

There is a certain overlap, in other words, in the perspectives of Quebec's main parties.

All three are working from the assumption that unless something is done, now, newcomers will fail to fit into Quebec society.

But while this discussion is going on, a very different one is happening among young adults in the province. 

What's happening on planet youth

Lost in the political noise last week was a study released by a team of scholars working under the backing of a radicalization research group at Cégep Édouard-Montpetit.

The group surveyed close to 1,000 students at thee mostly francophone Cégeps about their attitudes toward religion, immigration and extremism. 

They found that 59 per cent either agreed, or strongly agreed, with the statement that immigrants in Quebec are well-integrated. About the same number disagreed with the idea that the province should accept fewer immigrants. 

Strong majorities also indicated they wouldn't be bothered by a teacher wearing a hijab, skullcap or cross. 

Seven out of 10 said they didn't believe banning religious symbols in public would do much to counter radicalization.

Asked what their major social and political concerns were, the Cégep students prioritized the environment, inequality and economic development over immigration.

This is not to suggest that a debate about immigration is not worth having.

But the findings from this study raise the question of whether the terms of the current immigration debate are at all relevant to the generation that will have to live with its consequences.

Quebec's politicians are spending a lot of time worrying that newcomers are not fitting in. The province's youth have moved on to the next question: What are we going to accomplish together?

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.


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