In 2015, as images of a beaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada traveled around the world, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard decided to sponsor a family from the war torn country.
Habib Jarboue and his family settled in St-Félicien, a town of 11,000 in the region of Saguenay Lac-St-Jean, in Couillard’s home riding. They were one of the first Syrian families to settle in the area, and predictably attracted a lot of media attention, taking part in a weeklong camp that included kayaking, fishing and camping.
“Suzanne [Couillard’s wife] took very good care of them,” said Monique Simard, who knows the family because she sponsored an Iraqi family nearby.
Fast forward to this August, with a provincial election campaign just heating up, news emerged that the family had moved from the region to Montreal. The father’s former boss said they left for a weeklong trip and never came back. Suddenly, the newcomers became emblematical of Quebec’s larger immigration and integration problems.
It wasn’t that the family wasn’t supported. But the region, where only a handful of refugees live, doesn’t have nearly as many resources for newcomers as Montreal does. This is rural Quebec, where many inhabitants consider themselves pure-laine (a term that translates into “pure wool” and refers to direct descendants of 17th Century French settlers). Fluency in French is crucial. And despite the folksy warmth of locals, discrimination is still an issue. "There was a language issue, but it was progressively getting better," said Alain Bilodeau, a former colleague of the family.
"The community was very welcoming, there wasn’t any problem with that,” Couillard said in an interview with Vice earlier in the campaign, noting that big cities are more attractive to some people because they can connect with a larger community. “I think we need to realize that immigration is critical for our economic future and the future of our regions, specifically.”
The family’s problems embody Quebec’s lasting dilemma with immigration: with an aging population, the province is struggling with a labour shortage — according to government figures released in May, it has 90,000 open positions, and will need to fill 1.3-million jobs over ten years. And yet, some parties want to cut immigration by thousands, making it one of the key issues of the campaign in an election that remains too close to call. While Quebec has no control over the number of refugees that cross its borders, it can limit the number of so-called economic immigrants.
“By admitting less immigrants we can integrate them,” said Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, which is leading in the polls by just 1 percent.
"By admitting less immigrants we can integrate them."
The CAQ wants to slash the number of immigrants admitted by 20 percent, to 2003 levels, and has controversially proposed a “values test” within three years of a newcomer’s arrival. Couillard’s Liberals, running at a close second, said in 2016 that he wanted to raise the number of immigrants to 60,000 (it ranged around 50,000 to 54,000 in 2017), but promised not to “raise the immigration threshold without new integration measures” during the campaign.
Canada's targeted efforts to help Syrians were praised around the world, but the conversation around immigration and refugees has shifted since President Donald Trump took office. As his administration cracked down on illegal immigration, and told Haitians and Salvadorans that their protected legal status would end in 2019, an unprecedented number of people headed north, crossing into Canada by foot, away from official border checkpoints.
Quebec was the province that saw the most asylum claims, at the Roxham crossing, which put Couillard’s management in the spotlight. A record 24,000 asylum requests were made in 2017 in Quebec, half of what the country got, sparking protests by far-right groups like La Meute and Storm Alliance, and counter protests by anti-fascist organizations.
At an event in Quebec this summer, a member of Storm Alliance heckled Trudeau, demanding Ottawa repay the province for the administrative cost of welcoming the asylum seekers — a comment that led the prime minister to respond that “racism has no place in Canada.”
Quebec's immigration debate during the election has not been about refugees, per say, since that's the domain of the federal government. But the province stands out in Canada when it talks immigration. Part of it has to do with its distinct system — it's the only province with control over the number of economic immigrants it admits — that puts greater emphasis on integration, but also Quebec’s constant fear of assimilation and its desire to protect its French identity.
Appealing to voters mostly outside of Montreal, Legault believes that because 26 percent of newcomers leave within the first 10 years of their arrival, the current annual number of about 50,000 needs to be lowered, to invest in teaching French and integrating them. His party's “values test” could mean expelling immigrants if they fail.
But Legault made several mistakes when talking about Quebec’s immigration system over the campaign. The CAQ leader had a hard time answering questions about how federal and provincial powers are divided, as well as basic questions on immigration. He joked at one point that “I wouldn’t have won a trivia game with these answers."
Unlike previous elections, Quebec’s independence from Canada was not at the centre of 2018’s campaign. Still, Jean-François Lisée, who leads the separatist PQ party, believes Quebec’s distinct vision of immigration is more proof that the province doesn’t belong in the federation.
He offered the example of Bill 62 on religious neutrality, and how it was perceived in the rest of the country. The legislation, passed in 2017 and later suspended by the Superior Court, prohibited anyone from giving or receiving public services with their face covered. “It is quite extraordinary that just this year,” Lisée told Vice in an interview, “Philippe Couillard himself was called racist in the rest of Canada because of this law.” (It’s unclear what this is in reference to, but in 2017, the bill was denounced by many politicians in Ontario and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.) Lisée, whose party wants to only admit immigrants who pass a French-language test before immigrating, added that “the tension between Quebec’s national assembly going one step forward towards secularism, and Canada’s multiculturalism, is very strong. ”
Bill 62 was overwhelmingly popular among Quebecers: 87 percent supported it. The PQ and the CAQ now want to pass a bill that would go further in terms of banning religious signs from public spaces. Legault told Vice he’d be willing to use the notwithstanding clause to get it passed.
Still, political parties in Quebec need to play the identity card carefully. The Quebec Liberal party’s opposition to a “Charter of Values” in 2014 — the controversial precursor to the religious neutrality bill — helped secure Couillard a majority in that election, thanks to huge support from young and anglophone voters.
But the youth vote is likely to go somewhere else this time: Québec Solidaire, the democratic socialist and sovereigntist party and its two spokespeople, Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a former student activist, ran a strong campaign and are likely to make substantial gains. They started the campaign with 8 percent support, and are now at 16. The party campaigned mainly on the environment, but also defended values such as inclusion and diversity, stating that it wants to impose visible minority quotas on public sector hiring.
One thing all leaders agree on: more money needs to be invested into teaching immigrants French.
But if questions around numbers and how to welcome newcomers divide the four parties, they all agree on two points: that more money needs to be invested into teaching immigrants French, and more of them need to settle in Quebec’s rural regions.
As the PQ set the number of immigrants that should move outside of Montreal to 25 percent, Legault, Couillard, and Massé all agree that more has to be done to diversify Quebec’s rural communities, although they won’t state a specific number.
If Couillard’s Syrian family is an example of how hard it can be for immigrant families to settle into small towns, there are some success stories as well. According to Monique Simard, the Iraqi family she has sponsored loves the tight-knit environment the region offers that reminds them of their village in Iraq. Their children are now fluent in French, and both parents found a job. “For sure, families of a certain community can feel more lonely in small towns,” one immigrant settlement worker told VICE News, on condition that he not be identified. “But some immigrants exactly wants this and want to embrace Quebec’s culture,” he said. So much so that relatives of Monique Simard’s Iraqi family visited the region from Montreal last summer, and are now considering leaving the metropolis to settle in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean.
Cover image of Liberal party leader and premier Philippe Couillard, right, as he looks on as CAQ leader Francois Legault speaks during a youth-oriented event in Montreal, Friday, August 17, 2018. Photo by Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press