QUEBEC — Quebec could increase the total number of permanent immigrants entering the province to 60,000 a year by 2027 even though Premier François Legault has said in the past such a scenario would be “suicidal” for the future of French.
But Quebec has also announced plans to impose strict new French language requirements in the category of economic immigrants, which it controls alone. Economic immigrants are defined as skilled workers, investors and entrepreneurs.
To be imposed via soon-to-be-published regulations, this category of immigrant will require an oral and written Level 7 of French (advanced intermediate) to even apply to move to Quebec. The list is broken down based on skill sets. Level 7 would apply to such people as engineers, technicians, professors, graphic artists, teachers and nurses.
Level 5 French (intermediate; oral only) will suffice for workers in less skilled positions. Hospital orderlies, cooks and truck drivers are the examples given.
There are exceptions for people with what the government defines as “rare and unique” talents or expertise that could potentially contribute to the prosperity of Quebec, such as a world-class maestro or brain surgeon, or a Montreal Canadiens hockey recruit.
But overall, the goal is that 96 per cent of economic immigrants — which does not include refugees and people eligible for family unification — know French by 2027. The current rate is 88 per cent.
“For the first time in the history of Quebec, candidates for economic immigration must have a knowledge of French to qualify for selection,” Immigration Minister Christine Fréchette said Thursday at a news conference to announce the plan. Legault was on hand, as was the minister of the French language, Jean-François Roberge.
“We are going to require a knowledge of oral French,” Fréchette said, “but in certain cases written too.”
To get there, Quebec plans to scrap its existing economic immigrant program, the Regular Skilled Worker Program, replacing it with the Programme de sélection des travailleurs qualifiés (PSTQ). Also gone is the old points grid that used to determine an immigrant’s eligibility based on such factors as education, experience, age, whether they had children and whether they had an employment offer. The grid did not have a minimum French proficiency requirement.
And without dwelling on a failed attempt by her predecessor Simon Jolin-Barrette to reform the popular Programme de l’expérience québécoise (PEQ), which helped foreign students become Quebec residents, Fréchette is dropping the need to have a year’s worth of experience in a job and be employed to qualify for the program.
Jolin-Barrette’s reform resulted in the number of people using the PEQ to enter Quebec plunging from 8,000 a year to 2,000.
There is, however, a new requirement for PEQ candidates to have taken three years of secondary or post-secondary courses in French to apply. And unless they take their courses in French in English institutions like Dawson College or McGill University, they will be required to study in francophone institutions.
The new rules will also require people sponsoring relatives in family unification programs to file an “integration plan for relatives 18 to 55 to learn French.
The one area Thursday’s announcement did not touch is that of temporary foreign workers. With those workers’ numbers soaring to 290,000 in 2023, the Coalition Avenir Québec government is working on a separate plan to boost their use of French.
The showstopper of the day was the government’s masterful flip-flop on the number of immigrants Quebec can handle a year.
Despite statements during the 2022 election campaign by Legault that a hike in new arrivals beyond the current 50,000 a year would be “suicidal” for the future of French, Fréchette tabled a discussion paper outlining two scenarios for 2024-27, including an increase.
The first scenario is 50,000 a year for each of the next four years, but the second scenario says Quebec could accept 50,000 in 2024, 54,000 in 2025, 57,000 in 2026 and 60,000 in 2027.
In both scenarios, the number of people welcomed by Quebec in the categories of family unification (10,400), refugees (7,200) and humanitarian reasons (450) would remain the same for those years.
Fréchette will hold parliamentary consultations on the discussion paper in the early fall, with groups invited to give their opinions on the proposals. The regulations imposing the new French language rules will be published June 7.
Asked at the news conference about the change of attitude, Legault said the situation itself has changed.
“From the moment we are able — and there is a real openness on this from the federal government — to say the increase is for only francophones and people who master French, that completely changes the situation, which is why we tabled this second scenario,” Legault said.
He would not say which scenario he favours, only that he wants the debate to proceed.
He noted Quebec is acting to counter the decline in French. Statistics provided at a technical briefing indicated the percentage of people who speak French at home in Quebec dropped from 79 per cent to 77.5 per cent between the 2016 and 2021 censuses.
In Montreal, the number dropped from 49.8 per cent to 48.3 per cent.
The percentage of people speaking English at home in Quebec increased from 9.7 per cent to 10.4 per cent.
Legault said his “first duty,” and responsibility as leader of the only francophone-majority region in North America, is to protect French.
Quebec has more language measures in the works. Thursday’s announcement followed Legault’s recent statement that he would like to see economic immigrants, which represent 60 per cent of the total, be 100 per cent francophone or French-speaking by 2027.
In a message included in the consultation document, Fréchette said the objective of 96 per cent of economic immigrants knowing French is “unprecedented.”
“What we are announcing here today is historic,” she said. “Immigration is a potential solution to the decline of French, and our government will do everything in its power in the coming months to ensure it is.”
Quebec’s business lobby, which has been calling for an increase in immigrants to help cope with labour shortages, was the first to heap praise on the Legault government and the possible target of 60,000 a year.
“The government has come around to the need to change the rules of the game to make them more flexible and adapted to the labour market,” said Karl Blackburn, president of the province’s largest employer group, the Conseil du patronat.
François Vincent, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said his group is encouraged by the possible increase in immigrants. He said the new measures are “strong and will help small businesses deal with labour shortages.”
But the opposition parties at the legislature pounced on Legault’s flip-flop on the number of immigrants.
Liberal immigration critic Monsef Derraji ripped Legault, noting the premier said one thing in the election campaign and another after.
“We have here another broken election promise and incoherence which shows this government is disorganized and unreliable,” said Derraji.
Québec solidaire immigration critic Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, who is also an immigration lawyer, said the government has realized its PEQ reform was a disaster and dumped it over the side.
While he welcomed the plan to boost French among immigrants, he said Quebec is doing nothing about the level of French used by temporary foreign workers.
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