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Generations of Quebeckers were once forced to leave home for work, fleeing to Ontario or New England for a job, as their native province grappled with a chronic unemployment problem.

Until the turn of the century, Quebec’s jobless rate consistently exceeded the Canadian average by several percentage points. The spread with Ontario stood at as much as five points in the 1980s and never shrank below three points before 2000.

That was then. A falling birth rate, a fast-aging population and lower immigration levels than in the rest of Canada have since combined to make Quebec’s labour market the country’s second tightest after British Columbia.

Quebec’s unemployment rate stood at 5.6 per cent in October, compared with 7 per cent in Ontario and 6.7 per cent nationally. At 3.8 per cent, the unemployment rate in Quebec City was the lowest of any census metropolitan area in the country.

Premier François Legault considers this a nice problem to have.

“You have to admit it’s good news for [Quebec’s] 4.5 million workers because it puts upward pressure – and we’ve seen it for the past three years – on salaries,” the Premier said last week. “I’d rather have a lack of workers than a lack of jobs.”

Quebec businesses do not see it that way, however. They describe an acute labour shortage – there are currently more than 220,000 job vacancies in the province – as the biggest obstacle to economic growth. The province’s manufacturers have foregone $18-billion in revenues in the past two years because they could not find enough workers to fill orders. Many businesses are closing for lack of employees.

Last week, five of Quebec’s main business groups joined with the Union des municipalités du Québec to demand Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government boost immigration levels to prevent the current labour shortage from getting even worse. In addition to working with the federal government to accelerate the application process for temporary foreign workers, the groups want the province to permanently boost the number of permanent residents it accepts each year and do more to get newcomers to settle outside the greater Montreal area to more remote regions where the worker shortage has reached crisis levels.

Karl Blackburn, the head of the province’s main employers’ group, le Conseil du patronat du Québec (CPQ), called the province’s labour shortage “an economic catastrophe,” and called on Finance Minister Eric Girard to introduce new measures to address the labour crunch in next week’s fall economic statement.

Mr. Legault, who was elected in 2018 on a signature promise to temporarily cut immigration levels, continues to push back against such demands. The Premier emphasized automation, job training and digitization last week while outlining his government’s strategy for easing the labour shortage and boosting productivity.

Mr. Legault has made closing the wealth gap between his province and Ontario – Quebec’s per-capita gross domestic product remains about 13 per cent lower – his government’s top economic priority. As a result, he has insisted that bringing in more immigrants, who typically start off making less than the average full-time salary of $56,000, would only make this task harder.

“Immigration might be part of the solution, but we have to realize that, at 50,000 [immigrants] a year, we have reached our capacity for integration,” Mr. Legault said. “If we want the next generations to continue speaking French, there is a limit to the number of immigrants we can accept.”

Under a decades-old agreement with Ottawa, Quebec establishes its own immigration targets and selects economic immigrants. The federal government is responsible for choosing newcomers who come to the province as refugees or under the family reunification program.

Mr. Legault’s government recently announced it would seek to bring in 70,000 immigrants in 2022. But the one-time boost would only to make up for a shortfall of newcomers experienced in 2020 and this year because of the pandemic. Despite the one-shot increase, Quebec will continue to receive far fewer immigrants relative to its population than Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.

To keep pace with the rest of the country, Quebec, which accounts for 22.5 per cent of the Canadian population, would need to increase the number of immigrants it accepts to 90,000 starting this year and increase the level annually after that.

In 2019, Quebec accepted only 40,565 immigrants, or 11.9 per cent of the 341,180 permanent residents admitted to Canada that year. Its share is set to rise temporarily to 17 per cent next year, but will fall below 12 per cent again starting in 2023 as Ottawa increases the national immigration target to 421,000.

Beyond the current labour crunch, the CAQ’s immigration policy will leave the province even less well equipped to face the budgetary pressures caused by an increasingly aging population. At 19.7 per cent, the proportion of Quebeckers over the age of 65 exceeded the national average of 18 per cent in 2020. Quebec also has fewer residents under the age of 20 than the rest of Canada, while the size of its working-aged population has been shrinking.

Mr. Legault, who is up for re-election in 2022, continues to portray immigration as a threat to Quebec’s distinct culture. But his policies are damaging his province’s economic prospects and reducing its political influence within Canada. How can that be good for Quebec’s cultural survival?

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