Quebec leader wants that only economic immigrants who can speak French come by 2026

Quebec nationalist Prime Minister François Legault wants the Canadian province to only welcome economic immigrants who can speak French in the future. But the ambition has been mitigated by his minister of Economy.

François Legault, prime minister of Quebec province
François Legault, the prime minister of Quebec province, during the inauguration speech of the 43rd legislature

The leader of Quebec François Legault has the ambition that all economic immigrants selected to come work in the Canadian province speak French by 2026.

Mr Legault laid out the objectives on November 30 for his second four-year term as Prime Minister during the inaugural speech of the 43rd legislature. The nationalist party Coalition Avenir Quebec largely won the general election in October.

And one of his main concerns have been the decline of the French language in Quebec. “Decline of the French language is an existential issue for Quebec, in the very sense of the existence of our Nation,” he claimed.

As such, Mr Legault sets the target to have only francophone economic immigrants settling in Quebec by 2026. He said that 80 percent of economic immigrants spoke French during his previous mandate when previous governments welcomed 40 to 50 percent of economic immigrants who spoke French.

Quebec is responsible for granting visas for about 65 percent of immigration applications. The other requests are managed by the Federal government which handles refugee and family reunification applications. Such a policy would therefore only apply to permanent residency applicants on economic grounds, but not to refugees or temporary work visas.

Mr Legault’s objective is to stop the decline of French, in particular in Montreal, and to reverse the trend. The people who mainly speak French at home in Quebec went down to 77.5 percent in 2021 from 82.3 percent in 2001 the prime minister explains, quoting data from Statistics Canada. And on the island of Montreal, the most populous area of the province, the proportion went under 50 percent.

Critics argue the prime minister didn’t look at data at work to justify the new policy. And people speak more French there since 80 percent of workers in Quebec mainly use French at work, according to the 2021 census, while 14 percent mainly use English and 5 percent use both equally.

Nevertheless, the proportion of workers who mainly use French or both languages at work decreased slightly compared to the 2016 census (exact comparison is made difficult because of a change in methodology that increased answers about the use of only one language).

French is less dominant in Montreal metropolitan area because there is a large English-speaking minority and high rates of plurilingualism. Seventy percent of workers mainly use French and 21 percent mainly work in English, which shows a downward trend for French. Twenty years ago, in 2001 close to 73 percent mainly used French at work in Montreal.

But as far as migration is concerned, about 32 percent of people who come to live permanently to Quebec declare French as a mother tongue, a figure stable over the past decade and up from 27 percent compared to 2001 to 2010, according to Statistics Canada.

Stopping the decline of the French language to English, an unrealistic goal?

In 2021, the Quebec government passed a controversial law that aimed at protecting the French language.

Bill 96 emphasized that there is only one official language in the province, limited English-speaking teaching in Quebec’s higher education system, introduced the right to learn French so that people, including immigrants, can get French courses. It also enforced French as the main language for some companies and that services should be provided to clients in French.

The government proposed that a customer in a store in Quebec had the fundamental right to be served exclusively in French, with the exception of a tolerated mixed greeting of “Bonjour-Hi”, but quickly backtracked amid outrage and ridicule from residents.

Bill 69 has been criticized by the business community. And the new objective set by the prime minister already created discussions in the government.

The minister of Economy Pierre Fitzgibbon reacted that there would probably need some exceptions. “It would be nice, but we need to be realistic, it needs to be balanced according to the needs,” he said Wednesday before a cabinet meeting. He gave the example of a Korean company in the electric car industry that would probably need to have expertise from Korean workers who don’t speak French.

But the minister for Immigration Christine Fréchette argued it wasn’t time to think of specific exceptions already. “There are more than 320 million French-speaking people in the world. I can’t believe that in this 320 million there won’t be enough people, among those who want to emigrate, who will meet our needs” she said.

But she also opened the door to the possibility to prioritize people from “francotropic” countries or migrants for which linguistic transfers to French will be easier, if necessary. In Quebec French, francotropic countries are those with affinities with the French language. They don’t have French as a national or first language but their historical, cultural, linguistic or geographic proximity makes people more likely to learn French as a second language like in northwest Africa, Italy, Romania, Vietnam, Madagascar, etc.

Ms Fréchette said her ministry will hold hearings in 2023 to debate the immigration plan for the new year.

Justin Trudeau, the Federal prime minister of Canada, this week announced Canada will welcome 500,000 economic migrants a year instead of 400,000 to fill the lack of workforce in the country.

Will francophones suffice to respond to our needs? Ms Fréchette wondered. Will we have to target francotrope countries? This is what we will have to work out.”

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