In the three years since Fahimeh Sinai and Peyman Rajabian left Iran for a new life in Montreal, they have accomplished a lot – earning graduate degrees, touring the Gaspé and obtaining provincially funded therapy for their toddler son. They applied for citizenship as soon as they were eligible.
But they applied from Calgary.
At the end of September, the couple crammed into their sedan with son and belongings to make the long drive west. They had neither jobs nor a place to live. But they were sure it was the right decision.
Quebec is "very beautiful, very clean," Ms. Sinai says, and its people "very respectful." But they could not see a future, not one with gainful employment, anyway, and at least seven other couples they know have come to the same conclusion.
Quebeckers were startled last spring by reports from China that migrants seeking a "back door" into Canada were studying French so they could be fast-tracked to Quebec, the only province to control its own immigration, with no intention of remaining there.
But newcomers who arrive fully expecting to live in Quebec are packing their bags as well – because they cannot find jobs.
Statistics Canada figures for the first 11 months of this year show that Quebec has by far the country's highest unemployment rate for immigrants, at 11.5 per cent. It also has a higher unemployment gap between immigrants and non-immigrants than any other province: Anyone born outside Canada to arrive in the past decade is more than twice as likely to be out of a job, and the gap increases sharply for those who arrived in the past five years.
In those five years, Quebec has lost more than 40,000 residents through interprovincial migration – a bigger deficit than any province other than economically challenged Ontario (more than 65,000).
By last year, more than 62,000 newcomers who arrived between 2000 and 2009 had gone. Among entrepreneurs and other business people, the attrition rate was almost 60 per cent.
The more educated immigrants were, the likelier they were to pack up. Statistics Canada data requested by The Globe and Mail shows that the unemployment gap between Canadian-born workers and immigrants grows the more education a person has. University-educated immigrants are almost seven times more likely to be out of work than Canadian-born grads. Last year, more than 20 per cent of them were jobless.
These are people the province goes to great lengths to recruit and it needs them badly – to provide new skills and to rejuvenate an aging labour force. Failing to make them productive, one expert says, "becomes very, very problematic."
And yet Quebec is doing just that.
Not surprisingly, newcomers are less inclined to stay put if they are not fluent in French. But knowing the language does not always help.
Ms. Sinai and Mr. Rajabian speak it well enough to shop for groceries, but not to navigate the workplace. "We're sure that we'd have to write reports in French," Ms. Sinai said. "It's very difficult for us."
And it is not about to get any easier.
This month, the governing Parti Québécois unveiled a law requiring that companies with 25 people or more do business in French, which, according to an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette by provincial language minister Diane De Courcy, "is slipping within Quebec."
Census figures released in October show that the number of Quebeckers who claim French as their mother tongue has dipped slightly to 78.9 per cent. But in Montreal, the decline is much more evident – about a 10-per-cent drop in a decade – with people who speak French at home now making up just 56.5 per cent of the population.
Jean-François Lisée, now the governing Parti Québécois minister responsible for the city, has said he considers preserving its francophone majority "a legitimate national objective."
"We want it," he said, "and we will work to achieve it."
Ms. de Courcy described as "disturbing" reports that "many French-speaking newcomers must take English courses if they hope to find work."
But the truth is proficiency in just one language may no longer be enough.
"Unemployment rates are higher for people who are unilingual," says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies. Despite the desire to demonstrate "that Quebec is a French-speaking place, the reality of day-to-day interaction trumps this message."
A common criticism of immigration policies that, like Quebec's, value language over skills is that they bring in people whose abilities do not match what the economy needs.
This was not the case for Ms. Sinai and Mr. Rajabian. He has just finished his master's degree in construction management, and she in geology. With their background working in oil and gas in Iran, they are clearly well suited to Alberta, but Quebec has oil exploration of its own, and while the PQ's concerns about hydraulic fracturing have put the brakes on the hunt for gas, the province's "Plan Nord" push to tap its northern resources would put their skills at a premium.
And yet, Ms. Sinai says, "we sent résumés everywhere, but we couldn't find any answer."
Even for immigrants with the right skills, Quebec's networking-oriented job market can be "more difficult to penetrate," Mr. Jedwab says. "Very often, the hiring process is connected to who's already in place to hire. And there's a strong push to hire people that you know."
Eric Charest, a professor at the National School of Public Administration in Montreal, figures both government and private-sector employers realize actively integrating immigrants is important, but "there is still a kind of reticence. When we speak of discrimination, people think about direct racism. … Discrimination is much more subtle."
It shows up, he says, in the credentials employers recognize, the job training they provide, the level of acculturation they expect or simply in their subconscious idea of the ideal employee.
A study by University of Quebec at Montreal sociologist Paul Eid found that corporate recruiters given résumés identical in everything but name tended to pick people who seemed to be anglophone or francophone: They were 72-per-cent more likely to call "white" names over those that sounded African.
A similar study of employers in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, released last year by Metropolis British Columbia, found that anglophone-sounding names were 39 per cent more likely to get callbacks than Chinese or Indian names in Montreal, compared with 47 per cent in Toronto and 20 per cent in Vancouver.
Lina Donnard says she saw such bias first-hand last year while working for an information technology recruiting company. "If I had a French-Canadian or an African [candidate], they would definitely go with the French," she says. "I think that's terrible."
Ms. Donnard arrived from Brazil three years ago. She says she loves Montreal, but has found her own job hunt demoralizing. She has a degree in international affairs, but wound up working for a stone and marble supplier and then the recruiting company. Both, she says, short-changed her on salary or benefit requirements.
She admits to being surprised she cannot use the expertise that got her into Quebec in the first place. Now a graduate student at the University of Montreal, she hopes the extra credential and networking opportunities will produce work in her field. "I thought it would be easier for me."
Rogerio Brandao is more optimistic. Also from Brazil, he speaks four languages, has an MBA in foreign trade, and feels that getting to know the right people is all he needs to land the job of his dreams. So he plans to stick around.
"It has a lot to do with networking," he says. "So someone has to go out and try to develop this network. … It's not a lack of opportunities that I see."
Prof. Charest says failing to use people such as Mr. Brandao to their full potential "becomes very, very problematic from an economic perspective.
"You have all these people who are underutilized … and the skills you chose them for, they lose their value over time."
The most obvious costs are in Quebec's expenditures in recruiting and selecting these immigrants, then integrating them into their new communities. The longer that integration takes, the more it costs Quebec's relatively generous social safety net.
But the human resources costs – the ideas and skills you lose out on – are less tangible, Prof Charest says. "That's always the question – the waste of human capital."
Despite the new bill on French in the workplace, the PQ's unsteady footing as a minority government has led it to tone down much of its election-season rhetoric. Even so, the opposition Liberal Party and Coalition Avenir Quebec have threatened to topple the government, which does little to inspire immigrant confidence.
"When the federalists or Liberals are in power, there's less migration generally," Mr. Jedwab says. "There's more outmigration when there's a perception of instability – economic and political."
Political stability was not on the radar for Ms. Sinai and Mr. Rajabian. They do not follow politics and felt welcome in Quebec. Besides, the reasons they chose Montreal – good education system and a strong social safety net – proved to be sound. Mr. Rajabian completed his master's degree in construction management at Concordia University; Ms. Sinai is finishing the final thesis of her master's in geology at McGill University.
Both benefited from scholarships and other forms of provincial assistance. The speech and occupational-therapy programs their son, Farhan, received (after spending months on a waiting list) were "all awesome," his mother says.
They planned to stay put, but last spring, economic reality hit home: They needed to start making money and soon concluded "that we have better chances out west," Ms. Sinai says.
There are no regrets. "Me and my husband, we're both very happy that we moved here." They have an apartment within walking distance of downtown; they snagged Farhan not only a spot in a publicly funded therapy program, but a prized seat on its school bus.
As for the job hunt, Mr. Rajabian is waiting to hear back on a few interviews, and warming to the possibility of commuting to Fort McMurray. Once they can afford daycare, Ms. Sinai also will look for work.
Now they are encouraging others to follow.
"I have some friends [in Montreal] who are writing their theses," she says. "They are almost at the end of their education. And they told us they plan to come to Calgary."