Premier François Legault has introduced strict new requirements that will make it mandatory for nearly all economic immigrants to Quebec to be able to speak and write in French.
“My first responsibility as premier of Quebec is to make sure that our identity is protected,” Legault said at a news conference Thursday afternoon at the National Assembly.
“I am the only head of state in America who represents a majority of French speakers, so I have a responsibility to history, to protect and to continue this 400-year journey of a Francophone nation,” he said.
The plan has several measures that will toughen French-language requirements, including:
- Making it mandatory for economic immigrants to have at least an intermediate knowledge of French (previously they could earn points for knowledge of French but it wasn’t obligatory).
- Boosting French-language knowledge requirements for temporary foreign workers and foreign students under the Quebec Experience Program, also known as the PEQ.
- Requiring people that sponsor relatives coming to Quebec under the family reunification program to submit an “integration plan” for relatives aged 18-55 for learning French.
Legault says the goal of the plan is to have 100 per cent of economic immigrants to the province be able to speak French and write French.
“For many years now, we see year after year, the percentage of francophones in Quebec decreasing,” the premier said.
“I think if we want to make sure long term that we still speak French in Quebec, it’s important that we stop this decrease and start seeing an increase.”
The immigration plan does have some flexibility, however.
It removes a cap and loosens restrictions on the number of foreign students and foreign workers eligible to immigrate to Quebec under the PEQ. The level of French required of economic immigrants will vary depending on the kind of jobs they work.
“Levels of education are not all the same, so we have made the requirements lower for people with more manual or intermediate skills,” Legault said.
The plan also allows exceptions for people with “exceptional talents,” defined as “rare and unique expertise that could contribute to economic prosperity.”
Legault now open to target he once deemed ‘a bit suicidal’
The Coalition Avenir Québec government unveiled these new French language requirements on the same day it expressed an openness to the idea of boosting the number of immigrants the province welcomes each year.
He said the government is looking at two scenarios: maintaining its annual target of 50,000 immigrants per year until 2027, or gradually increasing the number each year to reach 60,000 immigrants by 2027.
The premier said he wants to hear what people think about the two scenarios at public consultations to be held next fall.
The premier described the latter scenario as “a bit suicidal” during last fall’s election campaign, because it could contribute to the decline of the French language in Quebec and “threaten social cohesion.”
The Liberals and Québec Solidaire (QS) attacked Legault’s comments at the time, calling them hurtful, irresponsible and lacking empathy.
But Legault said Thursday when he made those comments, he believed that Ottawa would require the province to increase both the number of economic immigrants and the number of immigrants being reunited with families, who tend to be less likely to have a knowledge of French.
He said Ottawa now seems willing to allow Quebec to increase only the number of economic immigrants, who’d be subject to the French language rules.
“So far, the discussions we’ve had with the federal government, they are more than open to accepting that. So it’s changing completely the picture,” Legault said.
In that scenario all of the 10,000 new immigrants admitted to Quebec would be fluent in French.
Business groups welcome changes, flexibility
Business groups are generally welcoming the new plan, saying it contains measures that offer flexibility to help address the province’s ongoing labour shortage.
“It’s great news for employers in Quebec,” Karl Blackburn, president of the Quebec’s largest employers group, the Conseil du Patronat du Québec, told CBC in an interview.
He said in particular the loosening of restrictions for PEQ program will add tens of thousands of people to the province’s labour market.
“It’s a positive signal that was eagerly awaited,” Véronique Proulx, head of Quebec Manufacturers and Exporters, said in a statement.
Proulx said the measure that allows language requirements to be adapted to job categories will help manufacturers.
“Not only will more modulated requirements make it possible to attract more people, but they will also promote their faster integration into the labour market,” she said.
François Vincent, Quebec vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, welcomed the willingness to increase immigration targets.
“This starts the thinking process in a positive and constructive way,” Vincent said in a statement.
Opposition parties at the National Assembly were quick to criticize the new plan.
Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, QS’s immigration critic who is also an immigration lawyer, said it was ironic that the CAQ was now willing to look at immigration targets over 50,000, which is what his party called for during the last provincial election campaign.
“They followed our recommendation to a certain extent, but that said it’s a broken promise,” Cliche-Rivard said.
“The CAQ’s campaign promise was clear: more than 50,000 immigrants would put the nation in peril, it’s suicidal etc.,” he said.
Liberal immigration critic Monsef Derraji echoed those thoughts, saying the CAQ broke its promise and is reminding Quebecers of how “messy and unreliable this government is.”
Parti Québécois immigration critic Pascal Bérubé said he was happy to see the CAQ embracing the notion, long touted by the PQ, that all economic immigrants should be able to speak French.
But Bérubé said the CAQ offered no evidence that its plan will actually reverse the decline of French.
“How will they measure it?” Bérubé asked. “What tools, what organizations will they use?”