Immigrants: their mother tongue shouldn't matter; it’s what we do with them that does

Toula Foscolos
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This morning, the Journal de Montréal’s Lise Ravary wrote a column denouncing comments made by PQ candidate, Jean-Francois Lisée.

Toula Foscolos

Regarding immigration to Quebec, he said: « Un Chinois de Shanghai qui connait le français ne devrait pas être égal à un type de Bordeaux en France aux yeux des autorités de l’immigration. » (A Chinese immigrant from Shanghai who understands French should not be seen as equal to someone from Bordeaux, France, in the eyes of immigration authorities.)

The reasoning, according to Lisée, is that someone whose mother tongue is French would, not only be able to better integrate, but would also live in French. The implication, of course being, that those whose first language isn’t French, only “pretend” to live in French. Egad! I’ve finally been outed!

There is much to criticize about this argument. But first, let me do something that I don’t do often; let me defend Lisée. On some basic and fundamental level, I understand what he’s trying to say. If Quebec’s ultimate goal is the preservation of its French language and culture, it would make sense that someone who already speaks that language 24/7 would theoretically be a better candidate than someone who simply professes some rudimentary knowledge of French so they can pass the immigration test and gain access to a Canadian passport. I understand the impulse to believe this to be true, because it makes life simpler and neater. If we do A, we get B. No surprises, no defections to Ontario after a year, no government money spent wooing immigrants, only to have them be a drain on our economy.

After all, the Canada-Quebec accord, (signed in 1991, granting Quebec sole responsibility to select all independent immigrants and refugees abroad who want to live in the province), was proposed and fought, for exactly such reasons of self-determination. The province wanted more control over its immigration policy so it would be able to select those deemed better suited for life and subsequent success here. Comprehension of the French language, understandably, would be one of the many selection criteria.

Unfortunately, if one looks at what’s happened since Quebec has taken control of its own immigration policy, the results are troubling, and Lisée’s logic easily proven wrong.

Statistics derived from the 2001 census clearly indicate two things: first, Quebec has had a serious problem recruiting the number of immigrants it would need to counteract the rapidly-declining birth rate, and second, the unemployment rate for non-immigrants in Quebec is significantly higher (21.9 percent, compared to 13 percent) than for non-immigrants in Ontario. In fact, the unemployment gap between immigrants and non-immigrants is 4.5 percent in Quebec, 1.4 percent in Ontario, and 0.4 percent in B.C.

It’s slightly Utopian to think that all we need to do is take things into our own hands, look for the ones who speak like us, bring them over, and easily integrate them into our way of life.

While I recognize that these numbers may also reflect overall employments trends across Canada, the gap in Quebec is certainly pronounced enough to make one wonder about, not only the efficiency of our immigration policies, but most importantly, the success of our integration policies.

Patrick Grady, a former senior official in the federal Department of Finance, who has written widely on economic policy, asks the following question: “Has the [Quebec] government been willing to sacrifice employability in its search for French-speaking immigrants?”

This, in turn, begs another question: if finding employable "French-speaking" immigrants is a problem, how much bigger of an issue will finding immigrants with French as a mother tongue be?

It's a question worth asking, because, with birth rates declining, our economic viability depends on us reaching the right conclusions.  

Another study that challenges Lisée's theory. According to a report released by the Quebec Human Rights Commission in May of this year, nearly 40 percent of candidates with Québécois-sounding names were offered an interview, compared with only 22.5 percent of those with ethnic-sounding names. So, again, the ugly truth is staring us in the face: even if you come from a French-speaking country like Senegal, if your name is Ben Amin, you’re still likely to have a harder time getting an interview; let alone a job.

It’s tempting to think that simplistic solutions can remedy such a complex problem. It’s slightly Utopian to think that all we need to do is take things into our own hands, look for the ones who speak like us, bring them over, and easily integrate them into our way of life.

The proof, however, is in the pudding. Countless studies seem to suggest that the real problem isn't necessarily a newcomer’s skill levels (French as their mother tongue, being one of them), but rather the extent to which these skills are accepted and effectively utilized in our workplace.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter (and it shouldn’t matter) whether the immigrant in question is from Shanghai or Bordeaux, because if we don’t focus on better utilizing what they have to offer, and, most importantly, in eliminating the stereotypes that prevent us from doing so, we might as well circle the wagons and call it a day.  

Organizations: Department of Finance, Quebec Human Rights Commission

Geographic location: Quebec, France, Shanghai Bordeaux Ontario B.C. Canada Senegal

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