Quebec Premier François Legault says everything is on the table as the province looks to mitigate the damage from the coronavirus pandemic – including reducing immigration levels to counter a rise in domestic unemployment.
“It’s something we will look at. I think we have to review everything,” Mr. Legault said on Tuesday. “The number of immigrants, with the high rate of joblessness we’ll have in the coming months, we could reduce the number.”
The province has some autonomy over its immigration levels. Some 40,500 immigrants were admitted into Quebec last year, a 20-per-cent decline from the year before.
The provincial government is also preparing to pump billions of dollars more into its economy and rescue distressed companies in the months ahead, Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said in an interview this week.
"There will be more money put into the rebound of the economy than [spent for] the shutdown,” he said. “We have to be very selective and think about the strategic sectors of the economy. We can’t let a very strategic sector fall.”
Mr. Legault’s government is conducting an analysis of Quebec’s economy and businesses as it tries to work out its funding priorities. And it has also begun an analysis of its trade balance with a view to producing more of its own goods.
The province has already unveiled a $2.5-billion emergency loan program for businesses in need of immediate liquidity, and it is now pledging more as the crisis stretches out.
“The word ‘bailout’ might be strong, but some will be bailouts,” Mr. Fitzgibbon said, adding the government could also take equity in certain companies and offer some aid that is forgiven. “I’ve got companies in my mind that may need a break for a couple of months and that’s it – they’re going to be as profitable as they were before. But others, you know, will have a long path to recovery. And the path could be 12 to 18 months.”
Quebec has been slowly working towards reopening its economy after enacting some of the continent’s most severe emergency measures.
On Monday, it announced that mining, residential construction and all auto repair and maintenance services would restart under strict conditions limiting human contact. The next logical sectors to reopen would be general construction and manufacturing, Mr. Fitzgibbon said.
The province is also working with public health officials towards allowing smaller retailers to reopen, particularly those who compete against big chains that have remained in operation, such as Walmart and Costco, Mr. Legault said on Wednesday.
Business groups, unions and social groups in Quebec are weighing in on how the province can recast its economic and fiscal policy in a more permanent way. On Wednesday, several organizations including employer group Conseil du patronat du Québec, the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec union and environmental group Équiterre released a letter they sent to Mr. Legault spelling out measures they believe will help reboot the economy while building a resilient, low-carbon future.
Among the suggestions: Accelerate spending on $44-billion worth of planned public transit and high-speed internet projects, expand support for energy-efficient building renovation, and fund initiatives to increase consumption of locally grown food.
The groups suggest financing the measures in part by redirecting deposits currently earmarked for the province’s debt-repayment fund.
“We not only have to deal with this humanitarian and economic crisis, we also have to prepare what comes after that,” said Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the Conseil du patronat, which represents major employers such as Rio Tinto Alcan Inc. and Royal Bank of Canada.
“It made sense to us to work with our civil-society partners to offer suggestions based on the broad social, environmental and economic consensus we have forged in Quebec over the last 10 years. Our widely shared goals are to make our society more resilient to shocks such as this pandemic, better equipped to deal with ongoing crises like climate change, more prosperous and socially strong and united.”
In trying to determine where best to direct aid for companies, Quebec is using models to look at data such as employment, salaries and business clusters where it sees strength, Mr. Fitzgibbon said. The province has in the past identified aerospace and engineering as two industries with the financial weight and profile crucial to its economy but “it’s not obvious” now which companies might be saved, the minister said.
Quebec has no shortage of companies in difficulty, but their ability to weather the storm varies wildly. Some, like Bombardier Inc., have significant debt and shrinking prospects for repaying it, while others with more tenable capital structures face cash-flow trouble as demand for their products evaporates.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.