notwithstanding clause canada quebec François Legault immigrants immigration

François Legault is demonizing immigrants for political gain — don’t fall for it

“Anti-immigrant rhetoric is always based on the same fears, the same xenophobia, the same protectionism, the same efforts to limit the ‘other’ from diluting or altering the ‘us.’ Everywhere around the world, this discourse — and its destructive consequences — remains the same. The politicians win, the people lose.”

I had barely landed back in Montreal from my vacation in Italy when I saw Quebec Premier François Legault making headlines again. When a reporter asked him during a campaign presser if he believed that increasing immigration targets in Quebec would pose a threat to Quebecers’ way of life, Legault had this to say: “Quebecers are peaceful. They don’t like arguing, they don’t like extremists, they don’t like violence. So, you have to make sure you keep it as it is.” 

I groaned. “Here we go again with the dog whistling,” I thought. 

Legault holds a comfortable lead in the polls and barring the sudden discovery of a video where he’s seen drowning puppies while expressing his love for Don Cherry, he’s expected to sail smoothly straight into another majority. He could easily afford to focus on the real challenges Quebecers face today. Instead, he’s chosen to continue along the same dangerous and divisive populism that has garnered him support in the past. 

How to debate immigration 

Debating immigration and how to best integrate immigrants in Quebec while protecting the French language and culture are important and valid discussions to have. There’s no question that the issue of immigrant integration is slightly more complex and sensitive a challenge here because of language. Few Quebecers (of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds) would deny that reality.

The reporters’ question could have been answered by discussing an increase in funding for better francisation efforts and French-language acquisition, more plentiful and accessible French courses for immigrants, initiatives to offer incentives to immigrants to move to Quebec’s regions — where they are both needed to fill vital labour shortages, and where they could also help with demystifying immigration for rural Quebecers who may worry that immigrants aren’t interested in learning the majority language and adapting to their new environment. 

The real challenges to immigrants’ integration are well-documented employment discrimination and the non-recognition of foreign credentials, the lack of sufficient resources to help immigrants acquire the majority language and better integrate into Quebec society, the lack of French teachers, the sorry state of our educational system, the reticence of the federal government to facilitate the admission of more francophone applicants both here in Quebec and across the country, as well as legislation like Bill 21 that discourages and marginalizes immigrants with the language and employment skills to contribute to Quebec. The government could be working to improve its training and internship programs for international students. Instead, he chose to treat immigrants like punching bags — scapegoating them once again, making easy targets for the xenophobes and a quick way to pick up some easy votes. 

To be anti-immigrant is to deny Quebec’s real needs

Most immigrants come to Quebec with considerable skills, education, youth and international life experience that benefit us in multiple ways. Quebec society is not only aging rapidly, with a low birth rate, but is also experiencing historic labour shortages. We desperately need immigration to offset these challenges and a government that’s more proactive in finding solutions. Le Soleil journalist François Bourque recently wrote a particularly revealing article showing how immigrants in the Quebec region are more likely to work in proportion to local citizens born in the country.

There were so many ways that Premier Legault could have answered the reporter’s question. Instead, he chose to insinuate that those coming here are a potential source of violence, extremism and “la chicane,” even though numerous studies have found either no relationship between immigration and crime or, in some cases, a correlation between increased immigration numbers and lower crime rates. Instead of focusing on the real challenges of integration (how to best integrate and utilize immigrants’ potential and make them feel at home so they will stay here), he chose to needlessly vilify immigrants and the children of immigrants (basically half of the island of Montreal) by gratuitously associating them with violence and extremism. 

Premier Legault later apologized for “the confusion” his words may have created, and his supporters jumped to defend him as an affable bumbler of words who didn’t “really mean to say what he said.” 

Only he did. 

The CAQ has been feeding us a steady diet of anti-immigrant rhetoric for half a decade now and it’s become increasingly hard to give him the benefit of the doubt or to pretend that he means anything other than what he has said time and time again when he states that “all cultures are not the same” or that “non-francophone immigration is a threat to tightly woven Quebec cohesion.” 

Scapegoating immigrants wins Legault votes, but Quebecers lose

Francois Legault immigration immigrants
Quebec Premier François Legault continues to demonize immigrants and immigration.

It may be politically advantageous for Legault to focus on immigrants as the problem, by trying to appease voters who want to limit them, but reality dictates that we look at Quebec’s real issues head on, or we’ll all be suffering the consequences in the not-so-distant future. While Legault enthusiastically shares stats about Quebec’s low unemployment rate, that number only betrays an urgent labour shortage across the province and the country. 

For the third straight month in a row, job vacancies stayed above the one-million mark across Canada. According to Statistics Canada, “In Quebec, the labour market is particularly tight and there simply are not enough unemployed people to fill the available jobs even if every unemployed person there had the skills and experience for those jobs and landed a position tomorrow.”

Our hospitals are short-staffed and small businesses are struggling to find employees. Both the Montreal Chamber of Commerce and the Quebec Manufacturers and Exporters organization have been begging for an increase in the annual immigration threshold. The CAQ has responded by radically increasing temporary immigration from 9% to 64% in the past few years, a solution that exploits migrants because it often forces them to work under substandard conditions, low wages and precarious conditions. It’s also a solution that, as Rima Elkouri pointed out in her La Presse column, ironically contributes to the decline of French in the province since these temporary workers are not eligible for francisation courses. 

Immigrants’ contributions should not be downplayed

Everywhere I went in Italy this past month, I saw immigrants. Immigrants working the market stalls, carrying and stocking the grocery aisles, cleaning the train stations, serving me food. On my last few days in Rome, I stayed at Campo de Fiori, the former Jewish ghetto. My bedroom window had a view of the bustling market. As early as 5 a.m., I watched as immigrants tirelessly carried all the items to create market stalls from scratch, filled them with produce and products, selling everything until the late hours of the evening. Around 7 p.m., they would patiently and methodically pick up every single piece and transport it to a nearby warehouse, only to repeat the laborious process all over again the next day. 

As the daughter of immigrants, I remain vigilant and forever in solidarity with the challenges new immigrants face, the exhausting manual work they take on, while often enduring substantial earning disadvantages below their education and skills, just for an opportunity at a better life. I see how some are mistreated, exploited and unappreciated while performing vital and necessary work that no one else will — all while often listening to the discourse of politicians who treat them as a threat and a liability to the very society they’re contributing to.

When Premier Legault treats immigrants as a potential source of danger and non-francophone immigrants as a threat to social cohesion, does he forget who saved our collective behinds in hospitals, CHSLDs and frontline services for the past three years? Does he forget who delivered our food when we were isolating, who collected that produce, drove those taxis, worked those cashes at Dollarama? Given their immense not-so-distant contributions during the pandemic, his comments are deeply insulting. 

Anti-immigrant rhetoric the same everywhere

There’s also an election going on in Italy right now, with Italians heading to the polls on Sept. 25. Polls are predicting that a centre-right coalition led by the “post-fascist” Brothers of Italy party headed by Giorgia Meloni will triumph later this month. The populist coalition has campaigned on Trump-style conservative promises, including a strong anti-immigration platform. The party is campaigning on the slogan, “God, Fatherland, Family.” Meloni openly admires Hungary PM Viktor Orban and his anti-immigrant stance. She routinely insists that one of the main focuses of the government should be to drive up birth rates in order to avoid the “extinction of Italians”. Sound familiar? We, too, have the premier’s favourite pundits talking about “demographic drowning.” 

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is the same around the world and over the centuries. It’s always based on the same fears, the same xenophobia, the same protectionism, the same efforts to limit the ‘other’ from diluting or altering in any way the ‘us.’ It’s not in the least bit original or profound. It’s a basic, knee-jerk, uninformed reaction to everything immigration has already been proven to contribute to.

I think about all those permanent and temporary immigrant workers in Italy as the elections approach. I think about everyone targeted by this kind of rhetoric right here at home, marginalized and scapegoated, their contributions minimized, their belonging questioned, the division and needless fear it always causes. Everywhere around the world, anti-immigrant discourse — and its destructive consequences — remains the same. The politicians win, the people lose. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.