Back in 2013, an Ontario hospital found a clever way to poach talent from Quebec.
Lakeridge Health, located in Oshawa, ran an advertisement aimed at medical students in McGill University’s student newspaper. The ad featured a young woman wearing a lab coat, a stethoscope and a pink hijab. “We don’t care what’s on your head. We care what’s in it,” it read.
The ad, which went viral on social media, followed a proposal by Pauline Marois's Parti Québécois minority government for a Quebec values charter that would have barred public employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, turbans and kippas on the job. Although the proposal was denounced by some, including by Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, it created a novel opportunity to lure doctors and nurses to Ontario.
The values charter met its demise when the PQ lost the 2014 election, but four years later, Quebeckers are experiencing déjà vu. The Coalition Avenir Québec, which swept to power in October, has cooked up its own controversial policies that risk driving away highly skilled workers. Not only is the CAQ vowing to ban some public employees—such as bureaucrats, teachers, police and judges—from wearing religious symbols or clothing, but Premier François Legault has said he’ll even use the notwithstanding clause to trample religious rights.
Legault has since suggested the rule changes might only apply to new government hires, but those aren’t the only job seekers he’s leaving in limbo. The CAQ also plans to cut Quebec’s immigration levels, force newcomers to take a “Quebec values” test and expel immigrants who fail to master French within three years. Those proposals have cast a chill over the private sector. For a party partly elected on its leader’s corporate credibility (Legault is a former airline executive), the CAQ isn’t exactly pursuing business-friendly policies.
Quebec’s economy is strong, but that strength has masked some sobering trends in the province’s job market. Last May, Quebec released its five-year labour strategy and acknowledged the province needs to ensure it has enough workers, including immigrants and young people.
In fact, Quebec experienced a net loss of 230,000 people under age 45 between 1981 and 2017, according to a recent report by the Montreal Economic Institute, citing Statistics Canada data. By contrast, Ontario's youth demographic grew during that same period. Quebec also lagged other provinces on full-time job creation.
The CAQ's bizarre fixation with religious minorities will only accelerate those trends. Perhaps worse still, Legault is squandering an opportunity to attract highly skilled talent from the rest of Canada. For instance, new immigrants are fuelling increased demand for French immersion programs in Ontario while also pushing more kids into post-secondary education, including STEM programs.
If Legault truly wants to protect the province's francophone identity, he should try to make newcomers stakeholders in the process. The CAQ should be ensuring all Quebeckers achieve parity in the workplace, including in compensation.
Narrowing religious rights may also sabotage Legault's other goals, such as improving access to family doctors, and seeding the growth of a technology and innovation hub along the St. Lawrence River.
The Liberals, who were in power from 2014 to 2018, learned the hard way not to mess with minority rights. Last year, they barred Quebeckers from wearing face coverings when using public services. That law, largely directed at Muslim women, was later suspended by a judge, and the government had to issue new guidelines on religious accommodation.
After the Liberals were defeated in October, outgoing premier Philippe Couillard had a road-to-Damascus moment. “Quebec must remain a smiling place of welcome, where people are judged by what is in their head, not on their head, what is in their hearts,” he said.