François Legault’s shameless pandering on immigration

Capping immigration won’t do anything to protect the French language

When François Legault launched the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec (CAQ), his all-but-confirmed vessel to re-enter Quebec politics, he addressed the group’s manifesto to “all those who want to change.” “It’s time to get Quebec moving again,” he wrote. Indeed it is.

Even for Legault’s critics, of which there are relatively few these days, it’s hard to find much to quibble with in his mission statement—education should be “the absolute priority”; culture and the protection of the French language are essential; public services should be… well, they should be better; and Quebec should do more to attract investments. As Vincent Marissal points out in this morning’s La Presse, Legault has so far proven himself enormously adept at “surfing on general ideas,” so much so that he’s emerged as the most credible candidate to replace Jean Charest as premier.

Legault’s unveiling of his group’s cultural and linguistic policy was no different in its reliance on popular ideas. It included such pearls of warmed-over conventional wisdom as a plea to Quebecers to speak French as often as possible, a promise to improve French-language education in the province, and a call for more funding for Quebec’s cultural institutions. Boilerplate stuff, all of it, though it’s hard to fault him for having good intentions. On immigration, however, the former PQ minister had a clear opportunity to rise above the politicians he no longer considers peers. Instead, Legault opted to play to the crowd, and proposed capping immigration at 45,000 new arrivals a year for two years, a policy Marissal correctly described as a “crass and populist nod to those once enchanted by Mario Dumont’s politics.”

If Legault was hoping to differentiate himself the Liberals and Parti Québécois, a cap on immigration—the obvious headline-grabber among yesterday’s proposals—is hardly novel. The Charest government has already revealed it intends to lower the number of immigrants entering the province from 54,000 last year to 50,000 per year between 2012 and 2015. And the notion of capping immigration has been floated by virtually every party in the province, most stridently by the ADQ in 2008, who were even more generous than Legault in asking for a cap of 46,000.

Legault says hitting the pause button on immigration is intended to allow the province to find its feet. And it’s certainly true that Quebec has had its fair share of struggles integrating immigrants. An auditor general’s report published last year found the unemployment rate among immigrants (13.7 per cent) was nearly twice that of Quebec-born residents (7.6 per cent). But the problem identified by the auditor general wasn’t the sheer number of immigrants; it was province’s admission criteria, which doesn’t mesh with its economic needs.

Though it’s usually couched in altruistic terms, the immigration debate in Quebec more often than not takes place in the context of linguistic policies, as it did again Monday at Legault’s announcement. “Given the decline in the birth rate,” Legault wrote on the CAQ’s website, “the integration of immigrants into the Francophone community of Quebec is a key factor that will determine the future of the French language in Quebec.” What Legault neglects to mention is there’s no compelling reason to believe immigrants threaten the viability of the French language.

Two recent reports show Quebec has been particularly successful over the past 30 years at ensuring its immigrants are able to function in French. A study released last spring by CIRANO (a multi-university research centre) found that over 60 per cent of the immigrants who settled in Quebec in 2008 spoke French, while 37 per cent spoke both French and English, the two highest rates in Canada. (Nationwide, the percentage of immigrants who could communicate in English stood at 56.6 per cent, while only 10 per cent could speak both French and English.) The research also found that the share of immigrants to Quebec who speak neither French nor English has declined from 53 per cent in 1980 to 20.9 per cent in 2008, nearly 10 points lower than the Canadian average. Similarly, a study done last year by the Institute for Research on Public Policy concluded that, in Quebec, “French is the predominant language among immigrants today, while English is present in the lives of a majority of them. Most immigrants play in both linguistic spheres, but those who seek to integrate into society are incited to use French more than English.”

There’s no doubt there’s a very real fear among francophone Quebecers that the future of the French language is threatened by immigration. A February 2011 survey, for instance, found 66 per cent of francophones in the province consider multiculturalism a threat to the survival of the French language. As a self-described outsider, Legault could have opted to not play on that fear in exchange for support in a make-believe campaign. So far, though, Legault has shown he’s far better at finding the pack than leading it.