Quebecers immigration Legault

Why these Quebecers believe Legault’s comments on immigration are so problematic

“There are millions of francophones around the world who would love to move here. If politicians truly had Quebec’s best interests at heart regarding the French language and culture, they would encourage that. Instead, they’re trying to limit immigration and portray it as dangerous — to the detriment of our economy and social cohesion.” 

Premier François Legault’s recent campaign comments associating immigration with violence and extremism, and his subsequent remarks about how “non-francophone immigration poses a threat to Quebec’s ‘tightly woven’ cohesion,” have been the subject of many heated debates and columns. They have also been met with concern by Quebecers worried the government is dog whistling to xenophobes and racists; unfairly and inaccurately treating immigration as a problem instead of a big part of the solution to our labour shortages.

Most importantly, many of the province’s immigrants and children of immigrants say they feel targeted by this divisive scapegoating that does little to address the real challenges of immigration but only serves to make people fearful of the ‘other’ and cautious of the different. 

What does it take to belong?

Winston Chan Quebecer immigration
Winston Chan (Why these Quebecers believe Legault’s comments on immigration are so problematic)

During a recent visit to Chinatown’s Asian Market, I spoke with Winston Chan, a former Chair of the Board of the Regroupement des jeunes chambres de commerce du Québec and member of Inclusive Revitalization, a committee working hard to protect the area’s last vacant lot at the corner of St-Laurent and René-Lévesque boulevards both from the REM expansion and rampant real-estate development. Chan, who’s also a board member of the National Coalition of Canadians Against Anti-Asian Racism, says he wants the market — and the activities and events organized within it — to act as a bridge connecting all Montrealers and the city’s Asian community. 

Chan says the premier’s comments left him feeling both angry and sad. “It’s not the perception we want people to have of immigrants and it’s simply not accurate. Those kinds of comments affect social cohesion because Quebec’s immigrants don’t feel like they belong when they hear that.” 

Chan, who completed his entire education (including university) in French (“I’m apparently just an anecdote,” he chuckles) becomes frustrated when he hears politicians or pundits saying allophones don’t adapt or integrate into the French culture. 

“People need to understand that integration takes time. Often it’s the second generation that will speak French. That doesn’t mean, however, that those who don’t speak it well don’t also contribute to Quebec society.” 

Chan believes initiatives like the Asian Market are perfect for counteracting the premier’s comments because they help show people how misguided those comments are.

“It’s very dangerous to mix politics and immigration questions… we see what’s happening in Europe,” Chan says. “We don’t have to fall into that trap here in Quebec, but sadly we are. It’s not the right way to get votes and it makes immigrants question their place here. They subsequently think, ‘What does it take to belong? How many generations does it take before I’m considered a Quebecer? Do I need to have a Master’s degree in French to be accepted?’ When is enough, enough?” 

No slip of the tongue

Nadia Seraiocco Quebecers immigration
Nadia Seraiocco (Why these Quebecers believe Legault’s comments on immigration are so problematic)

Nadia Seraiocco, a Ph.D. candidate in communications and a lecturer at UQAM’s École des Médias, initially thought the premier’s comments were a “slip of the tongue.” But after watching the TVA leaders’ debate last week and the way Legault chose to address further questions about his comments, she’s since changed her mind. 

“At first I thought, ‘Oh, he’s just a clumsy speaker,’ but during the debate he immediately used Sweden as an example to discuss immigration and that was deliberate,” she says. “Right now, immigration is being blamed for social tensions in Sweden by certain pundits and I don’t see the necessity of going there when we speak of immigration. When you engage in that type of discourse, you sort of induce this idea that Quebecers must watch out for something, that immigration is inherently dangerous.” 

A third-generation immigrant, Seraiocco grew up in Quebec City with an Italian father and a Ukrainian mother. “My grandfather barely spoke French and had a strong Italian accent, but growing up, immigration was always seen as something positive, as contributing to Quebec,” she says. “My grandma never spoke French very well, but she was integrated and very proud that her children spoke French and English. My father felt included in Lévesque’s dream for sovereignty.”

“But now, I feel like we’re moving backwards. We’re taking isolated cases and exaggerating the truth with all this divisive talk.”

A big part of Seraiocco’s work involves monitoring social media. “When Premier Legault brought up violence, you immediately saw the online reaction,” she says. “Once he made that comment associating violence and immigration, it became the topic and people could easily do a Google search and end up with what they think are reasons for violence and interpret it as they like. And the way algorithms work, the more you search a topic, the more you will find what you’re looking for, and you’ll be even more comforted in your beliefs.” 

She fears many people will immediately interpret the premier’s comments as immigration being a threat to the peace in Quebec. “It’s clear that this kind of talk won’t lead to more peace and understanding between communities,” she says. “His reference to Sweden confirms to me that it wasn’t a slip of the tongue, but intentional. It was specific because Sweden is often used as an example of a place where a lot of citizens are feeling threatened by immigration, losing their identity. When you bring Sweden up in the debate you might be appealing to populist theories on the web about immigration.” 

Considering the CAQ’s current popularity in the polls, Seraiocco finds it sad that Legault even went there. “You don’t even need it to get re-elected and yet you want people to assume that immigration can be problematic. It’s sad because immigrants — even second-generation immigrants — are feeling very targeted right now, and this is something that divides. And the results are showing that it’s polarizing and not a good strategy. Maybe it’s a good strategy to get votes, but not good as a long-term strategy for Quebec.”

Detracts attention from real issues and legitimizes racism

Janusz Kaczorowski Quebecers immigration Bloc Montréal
Janusz Kaczorowski (Why these Quebecers believe Legault’s comments on immigration are so problematic)

Janusz Kaczorowski is a research director in the department of family and emergency medicine at Université de Montréal. He’s also a first-generation immigrant and a candidate for Bloc Montréal in the Saint-Henri-Sainte-Anne riding. 

“Both as an immigrant and a candidate, I feel that such rhetoric not only detracts attention from many pressing issues facing our society such as the catastrophic state of our healthcare or educational system, but it also creates divisions and legitimizes racism and discrimination,” Kaczorowski says.

“There are 13% of Quebecers who are foreign born and most of them live in Montreal,” he continues. “Furthermore, more than a third of Montreal’s population are members of a visible minority. In this context, the recent policies of the Quebec government such as Bill 21, Bill 32, Bill 40 or Bill 96 as well as the on-going anti-immigrant rhetoric during the current electoral campaign, has had a disproportionate and negative impact on the residents of Montreal.”

Bloc Montréal believes that immigration policies should be depoliticized by focusing on the needs of our economy, Quebec’s capacity to successfully integrate the newcomers, on supporting admission of genuine refugees seeking an asylum, and on facilitating family reunification. 

“To do so,” says Kaczorowski, “we propose to conduct an annual, objective and politically independent assessment on how many and what type of immigrants are needed in each region of Quebec and what is our integration capacity within each region. This independent panel would be a group of experts representing different disciplines that would make evidence-based recommendations to the government on the anticipated impact of different immigration policies.”

Speaking French isn’t enough

Guy Rex Rodgers What We Choose to Remember Montreal Quebec anglos anglo English-speaking
Guy Rodgers (Why these Quebecers believe Legault’s comments on immigration are so problematic)

Canadian-born, Australian-raised Guy Rex Rodgers is a writer and documentary filmmaker whose documentary What We Choose to Remember features a cast of more than 30 characters whose families arrived in successive waves of immigration. His films focus on identity and belonging in Quebec and are ultimately a call to learn about and value each other’s heritage in the hopes of creating a more unified and inclusive home for all. 

Rogers is currently touring while his film is screened across the province and admits to also worrying about Legault’s comments and their implications.  

“I have heard many francophones claim that if more immigrants arrived speaking French, then there would be fewer problems and better vivre-ensemble,” he says, “but this myth needs to be challenged. Lots of anglophones and allophones arrive here speaking French but face barriers because of their accents. Most allophone children are educated in French thanks to Bill 101 but acquiring locally accented French does not automatically make them feel included and welcome. Somebody in government should research Triple Fs (French from France) to find out where they strike barriers.” 

Quebec is its immigrants, too

Claire Launay Le Québec c’est nous aussi
Claire Launay (Why these Quebecers believe Legault’s comments on immigration are so problematic)

As it happens, Claire Launay is indeed a francophone from France and isn’t feeling particularly embraced these days. As the president of Le Québec c’est nous aussi, a non-profit organization that works to defend the rights and living conditions of immigrants in Quebec by bringing their voices to the forefront, she’s both worried and frustrated that Legault’s comments stigmatize immigrants and paint a portrait of immigration that most Quebecers don’t recognize. She finds the premier’s comments revealing of his true beliefs about immigration. 

“I’ve been here for 11 years, and I only just now received my citizenship,” she says. “Emigrating is a long, complex and costly process, and we move with the hopes that we’ll be included and be a part of our new home. But comments like that make it feel hopeless because we weren’t born here. I’m francophone and I technically check all the boxes and I’m still not allowed to feel like I belong because I have a different accent and I’m not from here.”

Launay doesn’t understand the constant need to be debating immigration quotas during the campaign. “It’s such a reductive look at immigration and it’s completely counterproductive to Quebec’s needs. Immigration is a solution to our major labour shortages and an opportunity. There are millions of francophones around the world who would love to move here. If politicians truly had Quebec’s future and best interests at heart regarding the French language and culture, they would be encouraging that. Instead, they’re trying to limit immigration and portray it as dangerous — to the detriment of our economy and social cohesion.” 

As an immigrant, what she finds most offensive is the lack of appreciation and acknowledgment of the efforts and the sacrifices so many newcomers make to adapt and give back to their new home. 

“So many asylum seekers saved us on the frontlines during the pandemic,” Launay says. “[These comments] are such a slap in the face to them. And the irony is that, in many cases, Quebec needs us more than we need them. These policies clearly show a lack of consideration for immigrants.” 

These policies, Launay fears, may have long-lasting repercussions for Quebec. 

“The reality is that people talk. Now, when friends or family express a desire to emigrate here, if I’m being honest, sadly, I tell them, ‘Anywhere in Canada but here.’ While Quebec is making it so much harder to move here, Canada is making it so much easier.” 

A unifying project everyone can get behind

“My biggest fear is that this kind of talk encourages the belief that everyone should aim to be the same, that we’re looking for some kind of purity here, the worst kind of nationalism,” says Seraiocco. “Bills 96 and 21 don’t solve anything, they only marginalize minorities and I worry that Legault’s dog whistling is dangerous and divisive.”

“We shouldn’t want homogeneity. This mix of cultures in Montreal is richness and it’s wonderful. We have amazing French institutions and an amazing French culture surrounded by this variety of so many other wonderful influences.” 

Seraiocco believes that what we need is a collective project where everyone feels included. 

“This current talk isn’t Levesque’s nationalism,” she says, “this is an attempt to make Quebec feel like a village, something small. A rich culture is open and doesn’t close itself off to others.” ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.