MONTREAL — Quebec's political parties should commit to raising immigration targets if they're elected on Oct. 3, the head of a Montreal business group said Thursday, but he acknowledged that championing immigration has traditionally been a hard sell in the province.
Days ahead of the start to Quebec's election campaign, Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, said businesses in the region are struggling to find workers. Labour shortages, he added, are forcing companies to pay higher salaries, leave contracts unfulfilled or lower the quality of their services.
"The issue of the availability of workers is the No. 1 issue invoked by businesses when they're asked about the risks or obstacles to their growth and even the risks for the eventual survival of the business," he said in a phone interview.
The chamber urged the parties vying to form the next government to commit to raising immigration targets to at least 64,000 a year to help fill what it said was more than 220,000 vacant jobs across the province.
He recognizes, however, that concern over the French language is central to political discourse in Quebec. Most parties — particularly the Coalition Avenir Québec, which is leading in the polls — haven't wanted more immigrants because of a fear the state doesn't have the resources to properly integrate them and teach them French.
But Leblanc says the discourse has changed in the four years since the CAQ was elected on a promise of reducing immigration, adding that the need for workers can no longer be ignored.
"I don't think any of the parties who are susceptible to forming the next government currently have in their platforms that they want to reduce immigration, and I think that those who want that will be confronted all over Quebec by business owners and also by the employees of these businesses," he said, adding that he believed the province has the capacity to properly integrate the new arrivals and teach them French.
Business groups in Quebec have been calling for years for higher targets. Last month, a group representing exporters and manufacturers in the province suggested that the annual permanent resident limit should go as high as 90,000 a year.
The concern over language among the political class has increased in recent days after the release of census data showing the percentage of Quebec residents who predominantly speak French at home declined to 77.5 per cent in 2021 from 79 per cent in 2016. The percentage of Quebec residents whose first official language is English rose to 13 per cent in 2021 from 12 per cent in 2016.
So far, the Quebec Liberal Party is the only major party to officially commit to raising immigration targets if elected this fall. It has pledged a 70,000-per-year limit while it works to enter into agreements with Quebec’s regions to determine their real immigration needs.
The governing CAQ party has kept its permanent immigration targets at between 40,000 and 50,000 over the past four years, citing the need to properly integrate newcomers and ensure they learn French. The province is set to accept nearly 70,000 immigrants this year to catch up after failing to reach its target during the COVID-19 pandemic, but CAQ Leader François Legault has not yet announced whether he would raise the limits permanently if he's re-elected to a second term.
The Conservative party has promised to gradually lower immigration levels while working to increase automation and Quebec's birthrate. The Parti Québécois, meanwhile, has not released its platform, but its leader has expressed concerns that an influx of newcomers would jeopardize the status of French in the province.
Leblanc's group found that 78 per cent of Montreal businesses it surveyed reported being impacted by labour shortages. The cited impacts included salary pressures (72 per cent), inability to meet demand (58 per cent) and a slowdown of production (44 per cent).
Leblanc acknowledged that wages have traditionally been lower in Quebec than Ontario and that there's a need to catch up. But he said that neither higher wages nor programs to retain and retrain existing workers will be enough on their own to make up for the realities of an aging population and a booming economy.
He also said that part of the blame lies in Ottawa, which he said needs to address delays in granting permits for workers who have been selected by the province and facilitate the arrival of foreign students, especially those from French-speaking nations.
Quebec's campaign is scheduled to begin Sunday, with election day Oct. 3.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2022.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press