I work with migrants in Quebec. The province’s new language rules are dangerous.

“The government is looking for a political win at the expense of those least able to defend themselves—yet who we desperately need to keep our economy growing”

Carlos Rojas
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(Photograph by Nasuna Stuart-Ulin)

Carlos Rojas Salazar, director of operations & international affairs for the Association for the Rights of Household and Farm Workers, in the kitchen of the organization offices in Montreal. (Photography by Nasuna Stuart-Ulin)

I was raised in Mexico, but I’ve lived abroad since 1999, when I won a scholarship to study earth science and environmental policy at Biosphere2 in Arizona. After I graduated, my life took a very unexpected direction—I was hired as a consular agent at the Mexican consulate in Tucson, where I provided assistance to Mexican nationals, often migrants who’d been rescued from human traffickers. In the unforgiving but beautiful Sonoran Desert, I discovered the pain and joys of migration stories, and found my vocation. I decided to devote my life to studying migration, educate decision-makers on migrant issues and, most importantly, defend and give voice to migrants themselves.

In 2006, I joined the Mexican Foreign Service, and managed the Mexican delegation to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, then worked at the Mexican consulate in Seattle. Eventually I left the foreign service to join an NGO based in Chicago, which worked to empower Mexican migrants through education. In 2012, I moved to Montreal. I’d already applied to be a permanent resident in Canada while living in Paris, and I hoped to find a good quality of life, live in a francophone society and start a branch of the Chicago NGO, where I would help migrants in Quebec.

My first few months in Montreal were busy and harder than I’d anticipated. I’d already lived abroad in the U.S. and France, so I thought my integration into Montreal would be easier. It wasn’t. Arriving in March, I had to adjust to the weather, of course; my winter gear from the U.S. didn’t stand up. But the cold was the least of my challenges. First, I had to find an apartment. Because of my time in Paris, I was fluent in French, and yet some landlords closed their doors in my face. Whether it was due to the colour of my skin or my accented speech, I don’t know, but I had the distinct feeling of being unwelcome. One landlord simply said, “I don’t understand you.” I finally found a place near Parc-Ex, in the northern part of the island of Montreal, but it was infested with pests and freezing cold, without insulation. 

READ: “Financially, it would be catastrophic”: A university principal on Quebec’s tuition hikes

Worse were the social challenges, especially the stereotypes I soon learned some Québécois have about newcomers. And as always, there were language problems. I just didn’t have the local vocabulary common to Montreal, and sometimes understanding others was a challenge. I understood why newcomers here often gravitate together—it can be hard to make friends and integrate with locals. 

Yet my experience has been easier than those of many migrants—a reality I soon learned in the course of my work. The project of starting the new NGO office didn’t work out, but I found work advising a University of Montreal research team—a generous, compassionate, multicultural and multilingual group working to assess barriers that people with precarious immigration status face receiving health care.

(Photograph by Nasuna Stuart-Ulin)

As part of our research, we visited every neighbourhood in the city, and more than 500 gathering places: places of worship, festivals, markets and more, all over Montreal. I was shocked by the horror stories I heard from many hard-working, good-hearted people whose only sin had been to lose regular status in Canada—for example, by overstaying a work visa. I heard of agricultural workers injured at work and abandoned on the side of the road. Of undocumented workers, mostly women, sexually harassed by their employers. Of landlords who only provided heat during certain periods of the day. And again, there was language. I heard from people who sent two CVs to employers, identical except that one had a “French” name, and one had their own name. The former was accepted, the latter refused. 

That kind of linguistic discrimination was common. Canada overall has a more developed immigration and integration system than many other countries, but we are still far from having an efficient and compassionate one—and Quebec imposes another level of difficulty thanks to its efforts to preserve the French language as a representation of its national identity. 

That became even more apparent this November. Quebec premier François Legault, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, the nationalist political party that’s currently in power, and his government imposed a new requirement that temporary foreign workers pass an advanced French test after just three years of living in Quebec. Temporary foreign workers are already facing so many challenges: long working hours, low pay, poverty, malnutrition, lack of access to health services, isolation and discrimination. To add this hurdle to their lives is deeply unfair. 

It’s also going to make my own work harder. My university work evolved into what is now Conseil Migrant, a non-profit where I’m the director. We have about 25 volunteers who provide guidance and assistance to migrants trying to navigate life in Canada. In Quebec, that means linguistic help. Of course, being conversant in French is desirable for people living in Quebec, but the proficiency being asked for—level four, according to the province’s proficiency scale—is unreasonable, and even discriminatory for many workers. Though three years sounds like a long time, it’s isn’t a realistic timeframe to learn French given the lives of many temporary foreign workers. These people are already overworked, sometimes clocking 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. There’s no time to squeeze in French lessons. Many share bedrooms with others, sometimes up to eight people in a bedroom, or they live with their partners and kids in studio apartments that just aren’t conducive to studying. Many don’t have laptops, just a smartphone, which also makes it hard to study. Some don’t even have internet access. 

Others never intended—or were not allowed—to stay in Quebec for three years. But life happened and they’re still here. Maybe they got too busy. Maybe they got sick or injured. There are all sorts of barriers—financial, cultural and social—to achieving that level of proficiency in such a short time.

My opinion is that this new measure was designed to please the electorate, without any intention to have a real impact. I’d like to think that these policies aren’t designed to intentionally deport people who do not reach level four. But it’s discouraging for the government to impose the requirement without providing study time, financing to acquire technology, spaces to study and a better French teaching system. It’s not much of a leap to think that the government is looking for a political win by imposing an unreasonable standard on the very people least able to defend themselves—yet who we desperately need to keep our economy growing.

To be clear, these are also people who have little say in policy. In 2022, Canada had around 2.2 million people on temporary work visas. That’s more people than live on the entire island of Montreal. More than 500,000 of them were in Quebec. These people cannot vote, and politicians are not accountable to them. Their needs and unique circumstances are rarely considered at all. They cannot complain because they are afraid of losing their temporary visa, and their employers know it. They are residents without the rights the rest of us enjoy—there is a reason that last year, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, called out the low-wage stream of Canada’s temporary foreign worker program as a breeding ground for contemporary slavery. 

The real test of Quebec’s new rules will be what happens when someone doesn’t pass the test. I suspect we’ll soon be faced with a much worse problem than people with limited French skills: temporary foreign workers will lose their status, but rather than leave the country, they’ll begin working under the table to support their families here and back home.

If the CAQ really wants to protect the francophone identity of Quebec, it should be prepared to walk the walk and invest in our future. It could provide a well-funded package of policies to help temporary foreign workers study and succeed. They could include three or more hours a week of paid time to study, access to good facilities to learn French, and financing to acquire learning technology, or to use public transportation and get affordable internet access. They should also give temporary foreign workers more meaningful ways to participate in cultural activities and be part of the community at large. 

The best way to grow the French-speaking population is to embrace people who don’t speak French, not punish them for failing to do so. In the long run, that approach will only hurt them, and hurt Quebec.

—As told to Andrea Yu