In the three years since Fahimeh Sinai and Peyman Rajabian left Iran for a new life in Montreal, they have accomplished a lot – earning graduate degrees, touring the Gaspé and obtaining provincially funded therapy for their toddler son. They applied for citizenship as soon as they were eligible.
But they applied from Calgary.
At the end of September, the couple crammed into their sedan with son and belongings to make the long drive west. They had neither jobs nor a place to live. But they were sure it was the right decision.
Quebec is “very beautiful, very clean,” Ms. Sinai says, and its people “very respectful.” But they could not see a future, not one with gainful employment, anyway, and at least seven other couples they know have come to the same conclusion.
Quebeckers were startled last spring by reports from China that migrants seeking a “back door” into Canada were studying French so they could be fast-tracked to Quebec, the only province to control its own immigration, with no intention of remaining there.
But newcomers who arrive fully expecting to live in Quebec are packing their bags as well – because they cannot find jobs.
Statistics Canada figures for the first 11 months of this year show that Quebec has by far the country’s highest unemployment rate for immigrants, at 11.5 per cent. It also has a higher unemployment gap between immigrants and non-immigrants than any other province: Anyone born outside Canada to arrive in the past decade is more than twice as likely to be out of a job, and the gap increases sharply for those who arrived in the past five years.
In those five years, Quebec has lost more than 40,000 residents through interprovincial migration – a bigger deficit than any province other than economically challenged Ontario (more than 65,000).
By last year, more than 62,000 newcomers who arrived between 2000 and 2009 had gone. Among entrepreneurs and other business people, the attrition rate was almost 60 per cent.
The more educated immigrants were, the likelier they were to pack up. Statistics Canada data requested by The Globe and Mail shows that the unemployment gap between Canadian-born workers and immigrants grows the more education a person has. University-educated immigrants are almost seven times more likely to be out of work than Canadian-born grads. Last year, more than 20 per cent of them were jobless.
These are people the province goes to great lengths to recruit and it needs them badly – to provide new skills and to rejuvenate an aging labour force. Failing to make them productive, one expert says, “becomes very, very problematic.”
And yet Quebec is doing just that.
Not surprisingly, newcomers are less inclined to stay put if they are not fluent in French. But knowing the language does not always help.
Ms. Sinai and Mr. Rajabian speak it well enough to shop for groceries, but not to navigate the workplace. “We’re sure that we’d have to write reports in French,” Ms. Sinai said. “It’s very difficult for us.”
And it is not about to get any easier.
This month, the governing Parti Québécois unveiled a law requiring that companies with 25 people or more do business in French, which, according to an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette by provincial language minister Diane De Courcy, “is slipping within Quebec.”
Census figures released in October show that the number of Quebeckers who claim French as their mother tongue has dipped slightly to 78.9 per cent. But in Montreal, the decline is much more evident – about a 10-per-cent drop in a decade – with people who speak French at home now making up just 56.5 per cent of the population.
Jean-François Lisée, now the governing Parti Québécois minister responsible for the city, has said he considers preserving its francophone majority “a legitimate national objective.”
“We want it,” he said, “and we will work to achieve it.”
Ms. de Courcy described as “disturbing” reports that “many French-speaking newcomers must take English courses if they hope to find work.”
But the truth is proficiency in just one language may no longer be enough.