Andrew Chung, Toronto Star, December 29, 2009
Doggedly determined to succeed, Mounia Oulias makes a near-daily trek to a strip-mall immigrant settlement agency to use its aging computers to try to find a job.
For three months, the secretary by training from Morocco has been doing the same thing.
She hasn’t even had one reply.
“Of course, I didn’t think they would roll out the red carpet for me,” Oulias says with a shy smile. “But I didn’t think it would be this difficult.”
As Oulias is beginning to discover, among the provinces that receive the most immigrants–Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec–she has chosen the most challenging one in which to try to integrate.
A Star analysis of Quebec’s performance in a number of key areas, globally viewed as indicators of integration, suggests this province faces daunting gaps between its intentions and the reality newcomers experience in finding their place in the workforce and life in general.
What critics describe as a “systemic resistance to diversity” persists despite the fact that Quebec is facing serious labour shortages and there are more government programs than ever before to address the problems.
Among the indicators that show the province is falling short:
* Economic: Recent immigrants here face higher unemployment rates than Ontario or B.C., especially those from francophone countries in North Africa.
* Political: Representation of visible minorities in major institutions such as the police, civil service, school boards and trade unions is far below population figures.
* Cultural: The populace exhibits greater wariness toward new immigrants and their customs.
Last year, the province examined the so-called “reasonable accommodation” of minorities, especially religious ones, after controversies in 2007 raised alarm that Quebecers’ values were threatened.
While experts point to signs of integration–Montreal is less ethnically segregated at the neighbourhood level than other Canadian cities–Quebec businesses are still reluctant to hire foreigners, and even laws meant to provide equal access aren’t making much difference.
“It’s so sad: is everyone asleep?” Ana Campagna pleads. “Do we not realize the entire economic development of Quebec is tied to immigration?”
Campagna, executive director of Centre Génération Emploi, a job and integration agency, says if there isn’t movement on all dimensions of integration “then you’re setting up a marginalization.”
Fo Niemi, executive director of Montreal’s Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, points to a “systemic resistance to diversity.”
Immigration is rapidly increasing in Quebec. The province will accept about 55,000 newcomers in 2010. Just two years ago, it was around 45,000. Meanwhile, its face is changing. While 30 per cent are now considered “ethnocultural” minorities (non-French Canadian), 8.8 per cent are visible minorities (non-white). That proportion jumps to 26 per cent in Montreal.
Native Quebecers’ relationship to new immigrants is more complicated than elsewhere in Canada.
Scholars note immigration is concentrated in Montreal so most Quebecers have little experience with it, the francophone majority is quite homogenous, and there is an eternal fear that its identity and language are vulnerable.
“So the majority is always more worried than the majority in Toronto or Vancouver,” says sociologist Annick Germain, director of the Metropolis Centre, which studies immigration.
Quebecers in positions of power are nevertheless apt to defend the current state of affairs.
Statistics Canada has analyzed labour force data and found Quebec fares worse than Ontario or B.C. on immigrant unemployment.
The immigration and cultural communities minister cautions against comparing Quebec to these provinces. “Our model of integration is completely different,” Yolande James tells the Star. The fact that in the longer term the jobless picture brightens, she adds, “shows very clearly there is a process in place that’s completely normal.”
The assumption that language is the biggest barrier to immigrants finding jobs also appears untrue, since the jobless rate for French-speaking allophones, such as those from the Maghreb, hovers above 20 per cent. James, conceding it’s “something that worries us enormously,” maintains that “learning the language is key to integrating in Quebec, but it’s not the only thing.”
To be sure, Quebec immigrants face similar challenges to those in other provinces. The struggle to have qualifications recognized is one example. Ahmed, 51, a newcomer from Algeria, is an accountant who has spent five months looking for a job. He’s given up trying to enter the professional order of accountants since he’d have to “redo all my studies.” But finding a job even somewhat related is proving difficult, he says, because he lacks Quebec experience.
There are signs, however, that immigrants face higher hurdles here in terms of getting a foot in the door. The Star has found the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, has no visible minority in its management. Neither do the major trade unions, such as the Confédération des syndicats nationaux and the La Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec.
Michel Leblanc, president of the board of trade, which has 7,000 individual and 3,000 company members, says the organization is not meant to be a “statistical representation of the map” but rather a place for business leaders.
As ethnic groups establish themselves, business success will follow, he says. “We’re trying to track them and promote them,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time.”
The board has implemented, with James’s ministry, what many are calling a successful program, “World on our Doorstep,” matching immigrants with companies for internships that last a few days.
In other institutions such as the Montreal police, and especially Quebec’s provincial force, the Sûreté du Québec, visible minorities are severely under-represented.
The Quebec Human Rights Commission released a report in April following up on a 2001 law designed to promote equal access in public institutions to groups historically discriminated against. Eight years on, “visible minorities are poorly represented in all public bodies,” the report said. It also noted general “resistance” to meaningful measures to address the problem.
The commission criticized the Sûreté du Québec for a “near absence of visible minorities among the police personnel.” The level was just 0.4 per cent. Minorities are also markedly under-represented in the civil service.
Marie-Thérèse Chicha, an economist at the University of Montreal, has studied employment equity in Quebec, and found most firms that took action on diversity had headquarters in Toronto or the U.S. “I’d say there is a lot of prejudice,” she says. “People want to work with people they resemble, and hire those with the same profile.”
Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, said French Canadians’ history means they have a built-in network, a “solidarity,” he calls it, that can be tough for others to penetrate.
Quebec’s Intercultural Relations Council surveyed businesses and this summer reported that though many said they were open to diverse hiring, “the number of practices that would make that possible was kind of disconnected,” said its president, Patricia Rimok.
“In Toronto it was the business sector that took the lead, in Quebec it’s the government,” she adds.
As it happens, other English entities do better than their French counterparts in terms of diversity.
The level of representation of visible minorities in English school boards, according to the Human Rights Commission, is 4.3 per cent, compared to just 1.7 per cent in French school boards.
“I don’t like these comparisons because it’s not the language you speak that will determine your capacity to be open” to immigrants, says James, Quebec’s first black cabinet minister.
Businesses, school boards, and Quebecers in general are “very welcoming and open. If you ask me, ‘Does discrimination exist?’ the answer is yes, as it does elsewhere. It’s our responsibility to be vigilant.”
The complex relationship Quebecers have with newcomers also means they are more demanding of immigrants than other Canadians to drop their customs for those of the majority, polls consistently show. The province has instituted a controversial new policy forcing immigrants to sign a declaration accepting Quebec’s “common values,” which state, for example, that speaking French is a necessity, and that men and women are equal.
Quebec’s Liberal government has launched more programs aimed at integration than any previous one. It recently ran an ad campaign that stated Quebec’s future couldn’t be written without immigration.
“We don’t say diversity is good because it’s politically correct to say it,” James declares. “It’s because we really believe it.”
An immigrant like Mounia Oulias can only hope that attitude trickles down to whomever eventually decides to hire her.
Sidebar: How Immigrants Fare in Quebec
Unemployment rates for immigrants, aged 25-54, by period of landing, 2007
Very Recent Immigrants (fewer than five years in Canada)
Recent Immigrants (five to 10 years in Canada)
Established Immigrants (more than 10 years in Canada)
Visible minorities make up 8.8 per cent of Quebec’s population, 26 per cent of Montreal’s. What is their representation in select public bodies in Quebec?
School boards: 2.0%
Transport agencies: 4.3%
Provincial police: 0.4%
Visible minority population living below the poverty line, according to the Association for Canadian Studies
Sources: Statistics Canada, Quebec Human Rights Commission, Association for Canadian Studies