Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Quebec has so much trouble attracting immigrants

By HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette April 17, 2010

One of the most frustrating social trends in Quebec is the way that we as a society treat immigrants.

It's a crazy situation. We need - seriously need - immigrants. We need them to fill jobs that will be left vacant by Quebec's shrinking labour pool. We need them to pay the taxes that will pay for the health and social costs of this province's looming geezer-ization. And we need them to help pay back Quebecers' public debt (including our part of the federal debt), which the province's finance ministry rates as the world's fifth-highest (after Japan, Italy, Greece and Iceland).

And yet, as a study this month by the Montreal think tank CIRANO suggests, we as a society are blowing it.

The study notes, for example, that the jobless rate for immigrants who have a post-secondary education is 13 per cent. According to the 2006 census, that's almost twice the jobless rate among comparable immigrants in Ontario and British Columbia. It's three times the rate for Canadian-born holders of post-secondary diplomas.

This partly explains why only 18 per cent of all immigrants to Canada come to Quebec, too few for a province with 23 per cent of the country's population. (By contrast, Ontario and B.C. between them account for 51 per cent of the population but get 63 per cent of immigrants.) What makes Quebec's situation all the more unacceptable is that for decades the province has wielded more power over the selection of immigrants than any other province. Quebec sets its own criteria on who gets in.

You'd think that those it chooses to welcome would be more likely to do well. Not so: 19 per cent of immigrants age 25 to 54 are unemployed five years after arriving. Compare that with the 12-per-cent level for Canada as a whole.

Why this appalling record? Let's not heap too much blame on Quebec's language law. Yes, the primacy of French here induces many people to settle in English Canada, but it doesn't explain why even French-speakers often fail to crack the job market. Indeed, language theoretically ought to be less of a barrier to finding work here than in other provinces: 60 per cent of immigrants to Quebec in 2008 spoke either French or English upon arrival, the highest rate of any province.

So let's look beyond language.

The study suggests that part of the unemployment problem (although perhaps only a modest part) is Quebec's standing as "l'État providence" - that is, as the province with the most generous social benefits. The study's authors, the Université de Montréal's Brahim Boudarbat and Maude Boulet, note that the 2001 census shows that immigrants age 25 to 54 in Quebec obtained a whopping 52 per cent more public money than did their counterparts in the rest of Canada. The authors note this hardly spurs some people to work at a poorly paid job.

The problem here is not only with freeloading but also with the Quebec government's immigrant-screening process and social-benefits rules. They do too little to guard against parasitism.

A bigger problem is Quebec employers' well-known reluctance to recognize diplomas and experience acquired elsewhere than in North America or Europe. The study says this wariness is more acute here than in Ontario or B.C. Given that most immigrants are visible minorities, the study suggests racial bias can play a role.

The study does not deal with it, but Quebec's business establishment is notably remiss about putting out a welcome mat for visible minorities. Example: Of the 25 members of the Montreal Board of Trade's board of directors, not one is a visible minority.

The Quebec government itself is part of the problem. On the one hand, it recognizes the economic imperatives of attracting more immigrants and, indeed, it is doing so: It settled 49,500 immigrants last year, the most since 1991. On the other hand, it fails to use its own colossal civil service as a model by hiring immigrants or even their born-in-Quebec offspring.

To be sure, politicians say they want to do better. In 1990, the Bourassa government expressed embarrassment that a minuscule 1.7 per cent of its public service was from the cultural communities (loosely, first- or second-generation immigrants); it said it would double the rate by 1994. Only now, 16 years later, are we reaching Robert Bourassa's modest interim target. Most other provincial governments are miles ahead.

No other province needs immigrants so badly. No other province has so much power to choose desirable applicants. And yet, of the three provinces that receive the lion's share of immigrants, Quebec has the most trouble easing immigrants into roles in which they can contribute to society.

Crazy.

haubin@ thegazette.canwest.com
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