The past week should have been an easy victory lap for Quebec Premier François Legault as his government delivered a shimmering financial update including strong economic growth and record budget surpluses.
Instead, Mr. Legault spent a week mired in an immigration controversy that has ended his political honeymoon and produced headlines calling his government heartless. Mr. Legault, who promised to be Quebec’s premier of the economy and education, fought with leaders in both areas while young immigrant students facing rejection from their adopted province were crying in the halls of the Quebec National Assembly.
Over the past year, Mr. Legault’s government has frequently promoted policies it says are intended to protect Quebec’s identity. Most often, the measures had greatest effect on immigrants, religious minorities and anglophones. The danger of repeatedly pushing hot buttons popular with the francophone majority finally singed Mr. Legault’s fingers.
“I had a bad day,” he said Wednesday after weeping students visited the legislature. By Thursday, Mr. Legault was looking to his social-media pages for solace amid widespread condemnation elsewhere: “If you look on my Facebook for example, I will say that 90 per cent of people agree with what we’re doing.”
The trouble started just over a week ago, with immigration changes that included a values test the government pledged would ensure new arrivals respect fundamental values, such as basic equality rights. Many Quebec nationalists found the test laughably easy while immigrant groups condemned it as condescending.
This week, a closer examination revealed that the plan would curtail a program that allowed foreign students with strong academic results and employment prospects to become immigrants. The change chopped the list of qualified areas of study to 148 specific university and college programs, dashing the dreams of thousands of students, some of whom were already on the path to citizenship.
“We are people behind all this, not just numbers,” said Elsa Corgié, who came to Quebec from France as a student six years ago and now works in the music industry. “We are all people who want to contribute to Quebec society.”
Political commentators in the province declared the government’s honeymoon over and several described Simon Jolin-Barrette, a powerful 32-year-old cabinet minister in charge of controversial identity files, as cruel and heartless.
Initially, the government partly reversed course and allowed the portion of students already in Quebec, such as Ms. Corgié, to continue along their immigration path. Mr. Legault and Mr. Jolin-Barrette each took credit for the reversal. Then came an embarrassing loss in the National Assembly, where the opposition parties passed a symbolic motion demanding that the Legault administration change its immigration approach. The government, which has a commanding majority, failed to have enough members in the House to block the motion. By Friday evening, La Presse reported that the government was set to drop the plan and start over.
A few dozen student immigrants protested in the streets of Montreal Friday. “We need more guarantees. People are afraid; the rules change too often, the process is too long. The atmosphere is just too negative,” said Arbi Chouikh, a graduate student in business administration.
Meanwhile, Mr. Legault, a former airline executive, was in a verbal joust with a man who should normally be his ally. Michel Leblanc, the head of the Board of Trade of Greater Montreal, argues that Quebec needs more immigration with its aging population and shrinking work force. He says the province should especially covet highly educated new arrivals, such as those cut back this week. University rectors, who count on foreign students to fill enrolment, are also against the change.
“Quebeckers currently need nurses, engineers, computer-science workers,” Mr. Legault answered, naming specialties still on the shorter accepted list. “I don’t work for Michel Leblanc. I am not here to increase the client base of universities and CEGEPs at all costs.”
Populist policies touching minorities were prominent features of Mr. Legault’s first year in office.
His Coalition Avenir Québec government cut immigration quotas by 20 per cent, saying the province was not integrating immigrants properly. The government threw out 18,000 pending immigration files involving about 50,000 people, hoping to start fresh with a new system. A court ordered the government to reverse course.
On anglophones, the Legault government mused about banning “bonjour/hi,” a bilingual greeting many shopkeepers and receptionists have adopted in Montreal, before backing down. It unilaterally transferred English schools to the overburdened French system. Last week, the government pledged to limit access to English public services to citizens who could prove they belong to the “historic anglophone minority.”
In the biggest controversy, the government passed Bill 21, restricting the wearing of religious symbols by civil servants in positions of authority, including teachers. Members of religious minorities affected, mostly Muslim women who wear headscarves, have launched court challenges.
Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, a professor of political sociology at the University of Quebec at Montreal, says Mr. Legault’s brand of nationalism is marginalizing Quebec.
“In the short term, the CAQ’s type of identity nationalism gives its partisans the impression it is protecting them from foreigners,” Prof. Dufour wrote in The Conversation, an academic website. “Reality and hard facts are quickly overtaking them. These policies are accelerating Quebec’s shrinking demographic, political and economic weight in the Canadian federation.”
Universities, colleges and schools, Prof. Dufour said, are the best tools for integrating newcomers into Quebec society. “Some may have thought the economic pragmatists in the government would have called the ideologues to order, but they are too late.”
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