Quebec sovereigntists were buzzing last week as if they’d found an issue to breathe new life into their cause: the federal government’s expanded immigration targets.
Actually, it’s not really new: Ottawa’s plan to increase the number of immigrants to 500,000 a year by 2025 was released more than six months ago.
But a series of articles in the Journal de Montréal a week ago asserted that those expanded targets mean the federal government has adopted the goal promoted by a group called the Century Initiative: to increase Canada’s population to 100 million by 2100. Those articles pumped up the idea that the goal will “drown” Quebec culturally and politically.
So while English Canada’s political Twitter was fighting over passport illustrations, Quebec’s political class was bellowing about the Century Initiative. The National Assembly passed a resolution criticizing it. Premier François Legault spoke out.
Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser tried to catch up, noting that Ottawa hasn’t actually adopted the 100-million goal. No matter. The Bloc Québécois spent a week calling it a plot to snuff out Quebec culture.
This was a week of leaps of logic, but it was also evidence there really are two solitudes emerging on immigration, at least between the governments in Quebec City and Ottawa.
And as it turns out, there are lame arguments on both sides. The federal government’s economic arguments for ramping up immigration aren’t strong. They seem to just like the idea of a bigger population.
Ottawa’s decision to expand immigration targets by half doesn’t mean Canada is hurtling toward 100 million in 2100. There are 77 years until then. But it does ramp up the pace of immigration at a time when Quebec is slowing the rate at which it accepts newcomers, leaving the two seriously out of whack.
Quebec sets its own targets for immigration, now at 50,000. That’s just 10 per cent of the Canadian target of 500,000 planned for 2025.
That has become a source of political controversy in Quebec, said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, but it is also an “objective problem” in Canadian politics. It raises the notion that Quebec will shrink within Canada.
It would be better if Quebec decided that a province of nine million with a dynamic and attractive culture could bridge some of the gap, and protect French and strengthen its culture, with somewhat higher levels of immigration. And, Mr. Béland noted, some Quebec parties support higher targets.
But there is also a vein of conservative Quebec nationalists, including several writers at the Journal de Montréal, Mr. Beland noted, who use hot-button language – such as being “drowned” – as they argue extensive immigration threatens Quebec culture.
Mr. Legault won the 2018 election arguing Quebec had to reduce immigration because it could not integrate so many. Now the Parti Québécois is using that against him, arguing that even if the province sets its own targets, it will be swamped by Canada’s larger numbers.
While all that happened last week, Ottawa’s reaction was weak. Mr. Fraser lamely protested in wooden French that immigration can integrate francophones.
He said his targets are for the coming years, not the distant future. But many of his arguments for bigger numbers were the same weak stuff promoted by the Century Initiative – notably the assertion it will spur economic growth.
In 2016, one of the Century Initiative’s members, Dominic Barton – then global managing partner of consultants McKinsey and Co., and later ambassador to China – served as volunteer chair of an advisory council on economic growth, which proposed ramping up immigration to 450,000. But the then-immigration minister, John McCallum, didn’t adopt it.
Another group was cool to it: economists who specialize in immigration. A group of them told the government that higher immigration – at least as practised by Canada – won’t make the standard of living rise. It would make the economy bigger, sure, but not per capita.
But more immigration won’t suddenly make Canada’s aging population dramatically younger, either. It has a gradual effect – and it is even more gradual because Canada’s immigration reunites parents and grandparents.
There are good arguments for immigration, and a lot of arguments for a better immigration system. But the arguments for a sharp increase, including as a response to current labour shortages, have to be weighed against costs and concerns. Right now, the tight supply of housing in Canadian cities is at the top of the list.
So while the sudden panic in Quebec over immigration was driven by tabloid fear, it does matter that there is now a two-speed immigration plan in Canada that will keep generating political disputes, without much regard to facts. No wonder sovereigntists were rubbing their hands with glee.