François Legault red-zone businesses

Bad for his bottom line: Legault’s disconnect regarding immigration

“Despite the employers’ council calling the current labour shortage a ‘disaster,’ the CAQ’s nationalist platform continues to stubbornly focus on its anti-immigrant agenda.”

“If, every time we accept an economic immigrant, the federal government forces us to accept a refugee or a family reunification case, we’ll have a hard time finding the right people.”

This was the complaint recently expressed by Quebec Premier François Legault while speaking to the Conseil du patronat du Québec, the province’s largest employers’ group. When Radio-Canada published a copy of his speech, Legault ignored the backlash, explaining that his end goal, his “obsession” as he referred to it, is to ensure that Quebec’s annual average salary increases to $56,000, therefore immigrants need to prove that they can make that before being accepted here. 

“Each time I let in an immigrant who makes less than $56,000, I make my problem worse. Each time I let in an immigrant who makes more than $56,000, I improve my situation.” 

“Immigrants are not objects, much less numbers,” Quebec Solidaire MNA Ruba Ghazal said in reaction to Legault’s comments. “They are human beings. When my parents chose Quebec, they didn’t have $56,000-jobs waiting for them.” […] “I worked for a long time in factories, and what I heard from him reminded me of the way we talk about products on assembly lines.”

Immigrants as numbers

Ghazal’s sentiments were shared by many Quebecers whose families came here as refugees or via family reunification, who understandably don’t appreciate hearing their premier treating their loved ones as dollar signs, only good for developing or damaging his bottom line. There’s certainly a lot to unpack in a speech that references being “forced” to accept refugees and alludes to the “right” people. But, beyond being insulting and tone-deaf, the premier’s comments fail to address the reality on the ground.

Since being elected, Legault has repeated almost like a mantra that the real problem is employers not offering wages that are high enough and that a higher number of immigrants isn’t the solution.  

His insistence on focusing on high salaries and high skills is in sharp contrast, however, to Quebec’s current labour needs. One can make grandiose claims about wanting to ensure that the average salary in Quebec will be $56,000, and that low-wage immigrants risk messing up this plan, but what does that goal even mean in a province where the average born-and-raised Quebecer doesn’t make that? 

In response to Legault’s comments, Sonia Éthier, president of the CSQ (la Centrale des Syndicats du Québec) — a teachers’ union that represents 125,000 workers in the education sector — wrote a scathing open letter. “The premier calls the arrival of immigrants earning less than $56,000 a ‘problem.’ In saying so, does he even know that the average annual income of all employees in the public and para-public sectors is $44,000, 9.2% below all other employees in Quebec?” For school support staff, she notes, the average annual salary is only $23,400.

If, by his reasoning, jobs that make less than $56,000 are less valuable, what does he think of teachers or PABs? Or is it, perhaps, that we woefully underpay for such important jobs? Legault seems to be irritated by many private employers’ inability or unwillingness to pay higher salaries, yet he doesn’t seem to have any issues with keeping the government purse strings, which he controls, tightly shut. 

What about Quebec’s current labour needs?

Aiming to bring in more people who make higher salaries might check some boxes on his plan to increase the average Quebec salary, but what does it accomplish when it comes to the province’s immediate labour needs?

“The 150,000 jobs currently available in Quebec are positions that have no takers,” stated Karl Blackburn, president and CEO of the Quebec Employers’ Council. “Immigration is a response to this labour shortage.”

Most of the sectors suffering from severe labour shortages right now are in agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare, and business groups have been sounding the alarm for decades. While some see immigrants as a threat or an imposition, the reality is that these are jobs that no one is willing to do, and economies don’t run solely on high-skilled jobs. We desperately need people to work in factories, processing and manufacturing plants, farms, hospitals and other essential frontline work. Most of these jobs do not pay anywhere near $56,000, so how is the premier planning on addressing these labour shortages?

If Quebec is only looking to accept highly educated immigrants with expertise and justifiable expectations of a high salary, who’s going to pick the fruit on farms, work the cash at the grocery store, disinfect hospital rooms? Those who argue that immigrants should not be seen as cogs in a wheel and as a cheap solution to labour needs, are right, but they should also remember that immigrants and locals often have different sets of opportunities and expectations. Immigrants are often happy to do the jobs that the locals won’t do because it’s a way for them to improve their status and access better living conditions for them and their children. And they should be paid fairly and treated well while doing this essential work. If anything, this pandemic should have taught us that what many refer to as low-skilled jobs are merely low-prestige jobs that deserve far more respect. As for automation solving our labour shortages, I’m here to tell you that robots won’t give your mom a sponge bath in a seniors’ home, feed her a meal, hold her hand, take care of your kid at daycare or sanitize the waiting room of an ER. 

Quebec aging at a quick pace

And yet despite the employers’ council calling the current labour shortage a “disaster,” the CAQ’s nationalist platform continues to stubbornly focus on its anti-immigrant agenda and refuses to take the decisions required to rectify these problems. As a result, we continue to lag dangerously behind other provinces. Not only is Quebec’s newcomer intake ranked sixth among Canada’s provinces and territories on a per capita basis, Quebec is aging faster than the national average while its birth rate remains low.

A Desjardins Economics study forecasts that Quebec will have more deaths than births by 2028. That’s not in some faraway future. That’s in seven years. These demographic realities will affect the quality of life of Quebecers as they will limit economic growth and decrease the tax revenues needed for funding the social services Quebecers enjoy and have grown to rely on, such as health care, education and subsidized daycare. In other words, placing ideology ahead of reality may be great for the CAQ’s short-term party popularity and votes, but it will do zero for the very real demographic challenges Quebec is facing.   

Legault likes to say that “We’ll take fewer [immigrants], but we’ll take care of them,” but in his three years in power he’s often proven that the second part of his slogan was only there to make the first part more palatable to Quebecers. The PEQ fiasco, the treatment of international students, the indifference shown to “guardian angels”, the CAQ’s attempts to throw out 18,000 applications from skilled workers who were left in limbo with no regard for their lives and the money and years invested here — these are all consistent examples that prove the premier and his government are incapable of not only treating immigrants humanely and fairly, but even understanding their social and economic value.

Listening to the premier talk of being “forced” to accept refugees or sponsored immigrants coming to join their spouses or their children here also betrays an ignorance of the high qualifications education, and skills many often come here with. 

We’re lagging behind

And all this, while the federal government — able to see immigration as crucial to Canada’s long-term prosperity and short-term economic recovery — is in the middle of a historic effort to make up for immigration shortfalls because of the pandemic and is currently pushing to put foreign students and workers already in Canada on the fast track to permanent residence status. Quebec, on the other hand, has opted out of the program.

Legault’s reticence is even more exasperating when contrasted against the federal government’s latest efforts to woo more francophones across the country to increase Canada’s rate of bilingualism. Canada recently introduced three uncapped streams dedicated to francophone international graduates, healthcare workers and workers in other essential occupations. The new streams are for more than 90,000 essential workers and international graduates already in Canada, as Ottawa looks to hit its target of 401,000 new permanent residents. The result has been that many highly qualified, French-speaking immigrants who have been waiting for permanent residence for years without success are now leaving Quebec for greener pastures and the welcome mat in other provinces. 

Legault’s aim to stifle immigration to cater to an electoral base that is skeptical of its benefits is contrary to Quebec’s reality. An easing of immigration controls would in fact help the province’s labour needs by deploying workers where they are most needed. 

And trying to assess people’s economic value upon arrival is to fail to understand the most basic thing about immigration: the benefits are rarely instantaneous. Studies consistently show that, even if some newcomers don’t initially manage to make the big bucks (especially those forced to change careers and forego degrees and expertise that are not recognized here), their children will make more money and be better educated than them. It’s short-sighted to only assess immigrants’ value based on their immediate contributions.

It’s equally short-sighted to treat refugees as a problem, instead of their potential. Writer Kim Thuy was a refugee. Canada’s former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson was a refugee. Liberal Families Minister Ahmed Hussen was a refugee. People’s worth and their potential are not defined by their circumstances. What people give back to the society that takes them in cannot be measured solely by the income that they will eventually make.   

This column was written by the daughter of a man who came here because of the country’s family reunification policy. My father worked extremely hard, raised a family, contributed to Quebec’s economy, build a life here and is buried here. 

My father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my many friends whose parents came here as refugees, and the people just like them who came from somewhere else to build a life here are not numbers. They are not a profit margin, a return on someone’s investment, a bead to slide over on an abacus. Immigrants are essential contributors to Quebec’s prosperity, every bit as important as the people already here. We deserve a government that understands that. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.