Montreal Gazette

Quebec's concerns about immigratio­n echo across Canada

- ALLISON HANES

Toronto city council has set a nifty trap for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Already facing a $1.8-billion budget shortfall, Mayor Olivia Chow unveiled a 10.5 per cent property tax hike, the highest in the history of the amalgamate­d city (and way above Montreal's recent record increase of 4.9 per cent). But unless Ottawa forks over $250 million to cover the costs of a surge in asylum seekers in Toronto's emergency shelters, property taxes will be jacked an eye-watering 16.5 per cent, with the extra contributi­ons dubbed the “federal impacts levy.”

This shakedown by Canada's largest city, one of its most diverse, illustrate­s a couple of things.

One: Premier François Legault's polite letter to Trudeau last week asking for $470 million to reimburse the funds Quebec spent caring for a record number of irregular migrants who flooded the province in 2021 and 2022 was constructi­ve in comparison to Toronto's stunt, or even some of his own past rhetoric.

Two: The longtime national consensus on immigratio­n in Canada has cracked, as our capacity to welcome newcomers is being strained by a massive human influx.

A rising number of asylum seekers — now landing at airports instead of crossing at Roxham Rd. — a spike in foreign students helping offset the underfundi­ng of universiti­es or attending private colleges that offer a fast track to permanent residency, and a gush of temporary foreign workers to counter the labour shortage have now joined the traditiona­l streams of refugees and economic-class immigrants selected during a lengthy process.

Canada's population hit 40.5 million at the end of 2023, up 3.2 per cent from a year earlier. More than 1.2 million newcomers arrived last year alone — the largest growth increase since the 1950s and among the biggest jumps in the world (certainly the G7). There are now 2.5 million people in Canada on a temporary basis, including 500,000 in Quebec, which is 10 times more than two decades ago. And that's on top of the annual target for permanent settlement, which has been bumped from about 350,000 people in 2019 to 500,000 by 2025.

The Trudeau government has simultaneo­usly increased immigratio­n and lost control of it. This, in turn, has exacerbate­d other major problems, from housing affordabil­ity and availabili­ty to pressure on public services already pushed to the brink by the pandemic.

Warnings by civil servants about such consequenc­es were ignored. And the result is what National Bank economists call a “population trap.”

Suddenly everyone from coast to coast is wringing their hands about where — and how — to draw the line to maintain our standard of living and meet our labour force needs without sacrificin­g our identity as a country that embraces immigrants.

An opinion poll by Nanos for CTV in December found 61 per cent of Canadians favour reducing immigratio­n, versus just 34 per cent who say current levels should be maintained or raised. A year ago, that ratio was flipped.

The appropriat­e level of immigratio­n has long been a subject of debate in Quebec, where there are more than financial, infrastruc­ture and economic considerat­ions in the mix. The integratio­n of newcomers into the French language and culture has long been a preoccupat­ion for Quebecers.

These concerns led Legault to demand more authority over immigratio­n from Ottawa. And it has also contribute­d to some ugly rhetoric, when politicall­y convenient. During the most recent Quebec election campaign in 2022, Legault was called out for saying bringing more than 50,000 immigrants a year to Quebec would be “suicidal.” Meanwhile, his labour minister was lambasted for peddling tired and erroneous stereotype­s about immigrants who “do not work, do not speak French or do not adhere to the values of Quebec society.”

But whether Quebec decides 35,000, 60,000 or 70,000 is the maximum number of new immigrants it wants to accept each year is almost irrelevant when some 60,000 asylum seekers arrived in the province in the first 11 months of 2023, on track for 65,000. And that's over and above the 120,000 who came in the previous two years.

As a more diplomatic Legault said in his letter to Trudeau, Quebec has received more asylum seekers than all the other provinces combined and three times more per capita. While “proud” of its history caring for the world's desperate and displaced, he said Quebec has now reached a “breaking point.”

The monthly average of asylum seekers receiving social assistance has doubled, to more than 40,000 cases in 2023 from 19,000 in 2022. The number of requests also leapt by 30 per cent in early January over the same period last year. Quebec opened more than 1,150 new integratio­n classes this year, the equivalent of 50 new elementary schools, despite “already cruelly lacking teachers and space.”

Legault makes a much more compelling case when he uses facts and figures instead of his dog whistle. And now much of the rest of the country can empathize with Quebec's legitimate struggles.

Education Minister Bernard Drainville's comments Wednesday that “the open bar on immigratio­n has to stop” are more likely to resonate when once they might have rankled.

“Please, Mr. Trudeau, we have hit the limit,” Drainville implored.

The reality, though, as Quebec Liberal interim leader Marc Tanguay said, is we also need more immigrants. The province's aging labour force will require 1.6 million workers in the coming years.

Federal Immigratio­n Minister Marc Miller this week announced a two-year cap on internatio­nal student visas, cutting the allotment by 35 per cent.

That won't help Quebec much. But it's the first tentative step in a wider reckoning that must take place to fix our broken immigratio­n system — without slamming doors, turning against newcomers, or compromisi­ng our values as a welcoming and tolerant society.

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