Opinion

Quebec nationalism could once claim to be colour- and country-blind. Not anymore

In a society where other language are often seen as a threat to French, recruiting immigrants from Europe outside of France is exquisitely counterproductive

Pining for European immigrants would be quite a statement from any politician. From Legault, it is gobsmacking

In a society where other language are often seen as a threat to French, recruiting immigrants from Europe outside of France is exquisitely counterproductive. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec's nationalist movement, we're often assured, doesn't see skin tone or care from where you hail. It wants only to hear you speak French. "[A]ssociating Quebec nationalism with race is a mistake. Quebecers/French Canadians have never identified themselves by the colour of their skin," wrote former Stephen Harper press secretary Carl Vallée on Twitter last July.

Vallée was responding to something I'd written for the Guardian, in which I pointed out how Quebec's nationalist movement had become progressively older, whiter and less tolerant as it aged. The piece prompted much umbrage and the usual howls of Quebec bashing and the like. Vallée's response was probably the politest and certainly the most earnest. He seemed genuinely hurt that anyone would ever think such a thing.

And then last week, on his first official visit to France, Quebec Premier François Legault ripped the scab off Vallée's conceit. "Currently, there are too many immigrants in Quebec who aren't qualified or who don't speak French. So, we'd take more people from France, as well as more Europeans," Legault said in an interview with Le Devoir.

Pining for more "European" immigrants would be quite a statement from any politician. For Legault, who notably promised to reduce immigration to Quebec by 20 per cent, it is downright gobsmacking, and not only because he seems to have dragged a giant dog whistle with him to France. In calling for more Europeans from outside of France, he is essentially undermining the French fact enforced by Quebec government immigration quotas for nearly 50 years.

Quebec draws the vast majority of its immigration from Algeria, France, China, Morocco and Haiti. This is no accident. Quebec has had some sort of say over the selection of its immigrants since 1971 and has had domain over the choosing of immigrants and refugees still living in their own countries since 1991. Predictably, the province has used this power to reinforce its hard-fought French-speaking reality.

On this front, it has worked magnificently. The vast majority of these immigrants arrive here with the French language firmly embedded in their throats and souls, laying waste to the trope that immigration presents a demographic danger to the language. They are educated. Sixty per cent of the nearly 400 000 people who emigrated to Quebec between 2005 and 2014 had at least 14 years of schooling upon arrival, according to statistics from Quebec's immigration ministry.

And they tend to stay here. Nearly 90 per cent of Algerian immigrants to Quebec who arrived in Quebec between 2005 and 2014 were still in the province in 2016, according to Quebec government data. By comparison, only half of Chinese immigrants stayed put — a testament to their relative ignorance of la langue de Roch Voisine and the resulting stimulus to déménage to Toronto.

France, notably, is the only European country where a significant number of immigrants flock to Quebec. Again, given that some 96 per cent of French citizens speak the language, this is entirely predictable.

Less clear is why Legault would call for more immigration from, say, Italy or Germany, countries where a scant nine per cent of their respective populations can speak French. Learning a new language is a costly and fraught affair; it is far more effective to arrive speaking it already.

"Increasing the number of Francophone immigrants would seem to be the most effective way to ensure the survival of the French language," researcher Jean Ferretti told Radio-Canada.

In a society where other language are often seen as a threat to French, recruiting immigrants from Europe outside of France is exquisitely counterproductive. Equally as counterproductive: cutting immigration, Quebec's main source of demographic renewal, when it has the highest average age of any province outside Atlantic Canada.

Quebec values test

Yet Legault, an ostensibly economic-minded conservative, became premier in large part by kowtowing to Quebec's baser fears. His government plans on instituting a "Quebec values test" (hint: gender equality, good; genital mutilation, bad) and will soon introduce a law banning the wearing of religious symbols for government employees with "coercive powers," in the name of secularism. 

These sorts of rock-ribbed populist measures are allergic to logic. Rather, they appeal to a certain blinkered narrative peddled by too many politicians, Legault very much included, that immigrants are less immigrating than invading. The (barely) unspoken intent behind Legault's pleas for more "European" immigrants is the idea that Europeans, as opposed to Haitians or Algerians, are more likely to have the "Quebec values" of secularism, equality and the like — language be damned.

Carl Vallée is right, in a way. Born in the righteous cacophony of the 1960s, the Quebec nationalist movement recognized the imperative of being colour- and country-blind. Gérald Godin, the Parti Québécois first immigration minister, actively recruited amongst what he called the "neo-Québécois," in large part because he saw their burgeoning demographic weight within the province.

But that was decades ago. As Legault's "European" bon mots demonstrate, much of Quebec's modern nationalist movement is hardly like it once was.


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About the Author

Martin Patriquin is a Montreal writer and political commentator.

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