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opinion

Something quite predictable happened when Quebec's Liberal government recently suggested increasing the number of immigrants the province accepts each year to 60,000 from the current 50,000. The blowback was immediate, the critics apoplectic, and the government's retreat expeditious.

Quebec's population is aging faster than anywhere in Canada outside the Atlantic provinces. Its work force is shrinking, creating labour shortages in some sectors. The novelty of policies aimed at getting Quebeckers to have more babies – cheap daycare and generous parental leave – has worn off. Quebec's birth rate fell for the sixth year in a row in 2015. At 1.6 births per woman of child-bearing age, it's down from a 2009 peak of 1.73, and now matches the national average.

A recent government white paper warned that maintaining immigration at the current 50,000 annual level would lead to a "marked" decline in the working-age population between 2016 and 2031, putting a damper on economic growth and everything that flows from it. Starting at 60,000 immigrants a year, however, the work force would continue to grow well into the future.

A healthy discussion of immigration thresholds would consider these factors while reviewing the longer-term evidence. Since the adoption of the province's Bill 101 in 1977, requiring the children of immigrants to attend French-language schools, several cohorts of new Quebeckers have embraced la langue de Molière and successfully integrated into francophone society. The proportion of Quebeckers speaking French at home remained a robust 82.5 per cent in 2011, while almost 95 per cent of all Quebeckers could speak French, according to Statistics Canada.

Yet, despite such reassuring evidence, opposition politicians showed the usual reflexes in denouncing the government for merely raising the possibility of an increase in immigration. Granted, immigration is a touchier subject in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada, given francophone Quebeckers's perception of themselves as a threatened minority within North America. As the debate about the former Parti Québécois government's Charter of Values demonstrated in 2013, the perceived threat is not merely linguistic, but cultural and religious, as well.

Still, the opposition PQ and Coalition Avenir du Québec didn't focus on those aspects as much as the short-term economic costs of accepting more immigrants. Curiously, this is the same argument raised by prominent Quebec economist Pierre Fortin, who also warns against an increase in immigration quotas.

But while it's true that immigrants to Quebec have initially tended to face more difficulty integrating into the work force – employer discrimination and lack of English-language skills being among the main reasons – they also tend to catch up by the five- or 10-year mark. And Quebec's new policy of choosing immigrants in line with qualifications and labour market requirements will only hasten the integration of newcomers.

Besides, immigration is the opposite of a short-term policy. It is a long-term investment in a society's future dynamism and prosperity. A community that invests in its immigrants will see its immigrants, and their descendants, invest in it. If Canada is an example of anything, it is this.

Slow or zero population growth is a recipe for decline – economic, social, cultural. Choosing this path out of the fear that more immigration might not only change the face, but the fibre, of Quebec society would be to condemn the province to increasing marginalization within Canada and the world.

As much as Quebec sometimes feels closer to Europe than to the rest of Canada, Europe would be the wrong model for Quebec on immigration policy. A quarter of all immigrants who arrived in Quebec in the decade up to 2013 subsequently left the province, some because they sensed an unwelcoming environment. Quebec needs to devote more resources not only to attracting immigrants, but to retaining them after they arrive.

So what if it means some will need to learn English (in addition to French) to successfully integrate into the workplace? That is a reality faced by most Quebeckers, whether native-born or not. Most professions these days, especially if they involve technology, require some functionality in English.

No francophone Quebecker I know considers unilingualism an asset, yet the suggestion that immigrants should learn both of Canada's official languages sparks howls of protest from the PQ and CAQ, which seek to make political hay out of Quebeckers' insecurities. It's an insult to the resourcefulness of Quebeckers who, over four centuries, have maintained their linguistic identity in the face of far bigger cultural threats than the presence of bilingual immigrants.

If anything, Quebec needs more of them.