The owner of a downtown Montreal IGA supermarket has put up a large sign seeking to deflect blame for increasingly long lines at the check-out.
“We thank you for your patience and understanding during this period of full employment,” the sign reads. “While we are always looking for passionate candidates, our staff strives to minimize irritants and offer you the best service.”
Welcome to the new Quebec. Almost anywhere you go now in the province – which only a couple of decades ago posted the highest unemployment rates outside Atlantic Canada – you are likely to encounter the same refrain from employers: A labour shortage is forcing them to cut production, reduce opening hours and raise salaries.
Quebec has the highest job vacancy rate in Canada. Its record-low 5.2-per-cent unemployment rate is the second-lowest in the country, and could fall further in the next couple of years, according to the Desjardins credit union co-operative.
And while this is mostly a good news story – wages are on pace to grow a heady 4 per cent this year, after a 3-per-cent gain in 2017 – it also has its downsides. Quebec is missing out on investment because of rising operating costs and a lack of workers.
Almost everybody saw this coming. For years, demographers have been warning that Quebec’s aging population and lower immigration levels than in the rest of Canada would put the province in a bind as baby boomers started to retire. And while previous governments did boost the number of newcomers the province accepted annually – under a long-standing deal with Ottawa, Quebec gets to set its own immigration targets and choose its own economic immigrants – the number has rarely matched Quebec’s share of the Canadian population.
The result is that, while immigrants make up almost half of the population of the Greater Toronto Area, they account for about 23 per cent of the population in Greater Montreal. Overall, immigrants make up 13 per cent of Quebec’s population, but almost 30 per cent of Ontario’s. Quebec needs to take in far more immigrants annually if it is to prevent its share of the Canadian population from eventually falling below the 20-per-cent level and seeing the province’s political weight within Canada erode further.
You might think that, under these circumstances, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would have the long end of the stick in his negotiations with the newly elected Coalition Avenir Québec government. The former wants to increase annual immigration levels to 350,000 nationally by 2021, from 310,000 newcomers this year; the latter wants to cut the number of immigrants the province receives annually to 40,000 starting in 2019, down from 53,000 this year.
The CAQ argues the province needs to cut immigration levels to better integrate newcomers and accompany them personally as they adapt to Quebec society. But to meet his 40,000 target, Premier François Legault needs Ottawa to proportionally reduce the number of immigrants admitted to Quebec under the federal government’s refugee and family reunification programs.
That is asking a lot of a Prime Minister who has made diversity his leitmotif, and who insists Canada must remain a beacon for those facing persecution in other countries.
And yet, for all the complaints from Quebec employers, Mr. Trudeau knows francophone Quebec voters are on Mr. Legault’s side. Almost two-thirds of all Quebeckers support the CAQ’s immigration plan, according to a recent CROP poll conducted for Radio-Canada, including 49 per cent of those who voted for the Quebec Liberal Party in the October provincial election.
For Mr. Trudeau, this presents a dilemma. While the federal Liberal base expects Mr. Trudeau to stand up for Canadian values, the Prime Minister can’t exactly afford to antagonize Quebec francophones – and jeopardize Liberal seats – in an election year. And with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer insisting he is open to the CAQ’s demands, the Prime Minister must decide whether picking an identity-politics fight with Quebec is worth it.
Immigration is already shaping up to be a federal-election issue, with a recent Léger poll showing Canadians split down the middle on the topic. Conservative voters are much more likely to say the country already accepts too many immigrants, and People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier plans to campaign on a promise to cut annual immigration levels to 250,000 newcomers.
The federal Liberals’ immigration plan has all the makings of a wedge issue that could cut both ways. For many Quebeckers, it would condemn their low-immigration province to marginalization inside Canada within a generation – making Mr. Trudeau subject to accusations that is precisely what he is seeking to do.