Quebec needs a migrant strike to remind everyone how this province functions

“It’s been frustrating to watch anti-immigrant sentiment ramp up in Quebec over the last five years, aided by a CAQ government that irresponsibly continues to treat immigration as a constant threat to Quebec’s identity and language.”

It’s been frustrating to watch anti-immigrant sentiment ramp up in Quebec over the last five years, aided by a CAQ government that irresponsibly continues to treat immigration as a constant threat to Quebec’s identity and language. This scapegoating persists, even though, outside of Montreal, Quebec is Canada’s least racially diverse province and French remains the first official language spoken by more than 90% of the population in most of Quebec’s regions. 

While, south of the border, immigration is listed as the primary reason the American economy has rebounded so well, even propelling the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic as the most robust in the world, here, the provincial government insists on treating immigration solely as a problem, never as part of the solution. 

I’ve often thought that Quebec needs its own Lysistrata moment — a strike or boycott to remind our government and fellow Quebecers how much we, as a society and as an economy, rely on immigrants, temporary foreign workers and, yes, even asylum seekers for our healthcare and daycare services, our agriculture and food production sectors, our factories and warehouses and many of our frontline services.

Lysistrata — an ancient Greek comedy in which the protagonist, in an effort to persuade the warring men of Greek city states to end the Peloponnesian War, convinces all the women to go on a sex strike — and, in a similar vein, Iceland’s women’s strike in 1975 (in which close to 90% of Iceland’s women refused to work inside or outside the home, hoping to strike a blow against pay inequity) are, of course, about gender politics, but they’re essentially about power dynamics. They’re about a marginalized group, whose contributions are undervalued and who initially appear the “weakest,” showing the real power they have.

Immigrants have long been targeted by and long resisted lazy scapegoating. In 2017, in response to then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda (which included a Muslim ban and plans to build a border wall with Mexico), a boycott was organized. A Day Without Immigrants aimed to highlight immigrants’ contributions and importance to the U.S. economy; immigrants did not go to work, refrained from purchasing anything and many restaurants and businesses that heavily relied on their labour closed their doors in solidarity. 

Since elected, the CAQ government has been lacking both in empathy and even rudimentary acknowledgment of our reliance on both temporary and permanent migration. Premier Legault continues to play politics on the backs of people who are often the most vulnerable and the least vocal because they’re too busy surviving or often too scared that criticism could somehow compromise their asylum requests, their applications for permanent residency or even their jobs — often directly linked to their temporary worker status.

Under the guise of language protection, politicians and pundits treat the most essential of workers as disposable humans, often ascribing to them the worst motives. Recently, the government even decided to spend public money to contest the right of asylum seekers —  currently working essential jobs — to have access to subsidized daycare. We’re essentially signalling to this vulnerable group, many of them single moms, “We’ll take your labour, but figure out childcare on your own!” How progressive and feminist of us!

The CAQ government has a long track record of not treating immigrants well. It attempted to throw out 18,000 skilled-worker applications without any thought to how it would affect them. It refused to expand a special federal program to regularize more “guardian angels” and the many asylum seekers who tirelessly and bravely worked during the pandemic to ensure Quebec’s hospitals, restaurants, warehouses and CHSLDs kept operating.

Quebec’s former Immigration (and Social Solidarity!) minister Jean Boulet also spoke of immigrants as people who “don’t integrate, don’t work, don’t speak French,” without any statistics to back up those claims.

Currently, the CAQ stubbornly refuses to increase its annual immigration quotas for political reasons, while hypocritically increasing temporary workers five-fold, severely compromising family reunification applications for many Quebecers and their foreign partners and creating processing delays that are three times longer than in the rest of the country. 

Last October, when the government of Canada announced that it would open the door to 11,000 people from Colombia, Haiti and Venezuela who have immediate family members living here either as citizens or permanent residents, the CAQ government made it clear that it was opting out of the program, preventing many Haitian Quebecers from being able to bring their family members here. 

Immigration and the presence of asylum seekers have also been irresponsibly linked by this government to the housing crisis, the education crisis, the healthcare crisis and the lack of daycare spaces. Yes, we have shortages, but instead of taking responsibility for failing to properly allocate the funds and spaces it promised, the government has resorted to deflecting by scapegoating immigrants and asylum seekers, leading to even more marginalization and resentment of people this province benefits from daily. 

Immigrants in Quebec are teachers, doctors, dep owners, daycare workers, bus drivers, nurses, Hydro-Québec engineers, etc. Temporary foreign workers are propping up Quebec’s agricultural sector. International students are working menial service jobs in downtown hotels, restaurant kitchens, retail stores and fast-food chains — you know, the places constantly posting “Employees Wanted” signs. Asylum seekers are working as sanitation workers and personal support workers in CHSLDs and hospitals. If these people just… stopped, what would it look like? Would our economy just come to a screeching halt? 

Would some of the folks currently yelling for people to be deported or bussed to another province or prevented from applying for asylum finally stop vilifying people who also offer us so much in return? 

Immigrants and asylum seekers are of course human beings that should be valued and respected for far more than simply what they can do for us. But, while our government insists on treating them as a constant financial burden and a cultural and linguistic threat, wouldn’t it be brilliant to remind our politicians that we need them as much as they need us? And that, if they were to suddenly and collectively stop working or leave the province, we would be beyond inconvenienced — we would be, forgive my French, quite screwed. ■

This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of Cult MTL.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.