Staying true to its election promise, the new Coalition Avenir Quebec government announced Tuesday it will cut immigration by about 20 per cent next year despite labour shortages across the province.
Too many newcomers are unemployed, don't speak French and aren't fully integrated, Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette told reporters after tabling his immigration targets for 2019.
Citing the majority mandate received in the Oct. 1 election, Jolin-Barrette said the Quebec public supports the government plan to reduce its immigration objective to 40,000 people next year — a drop of about 10,000.
The announcement sets up a potential flashpoint with Ottawa, which has a say over a portion of immigration to Quebec.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau questioned the plan before Jolin-Barrette even made it official.
"What I hear across Quebec is entrepreneurs and businesses worried about the shortage of labour," Trudeau told reporters Tuesday morning. "I'm not sure that this is the best time to reduce the number of people who come."
Jolin-Barrette said the reduction will be temporary, in order to give the government time to overhaul the immigration system. More resources will be put towards teaching immigrants French and better matching newcomers with the needs of the job market.
"It's not respectful for us to tell people to come here, and they can't find work in their field," Jolin-Barrette said. "This temporary reduction will allow us to have a better balance between new arrivals and the needs of the regions and employers."
The cuts drew immediate criticism from the Opposition Liberals, who asked how the government could reduce immigration when businesses across Quebec are suffering from labour shortages.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business released data Tuesday indicating Quebec has a 4.1 per cent vacancy rate in its labour market, representing about 118,000 unfilled jobs. It is the highest rate in the country.
In question period, Liberal immigration critic Dominique Anglade questioned what studies support the reduction, which was a central plank of the Coalition election platform. Critics said the promise was aimed at voters outside Montreal fearful that non-francophone immigrants threatened the survival of the French language.
"The only thing that is clear is that they are using an arbitrary number — supported by ideology," Anglade said Tuesday.
The government plan would reduce by roughly 20 per cent each of the three categories of immigrants welcomed to Quebec every year.
Under a deal with the federal government, Quebec has control over the selection of so-called economic immigrants to the province, who are mostly skilled workers and businesspeople. They account for about 70 per cent of new arrivals every year.
The other 30 per cent are selected by Ottawa. They are either refugees or relatives of people already in Quebec coming through the family reunification program.
If it is to meet its new targets, Quebec needs Ottawa's approval to reduce the number of immigrants from the second and third categories. Jolin-Barrette said he is in discussions with the federal government to reach a deal.
"The objective of both governments is to ensure the people we welcome here learn French and are well integrated," he said.
But Federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc expressed concern that reducing the number of family reunification candidates will mean immigrants wait longer to be reunited with their families in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada.
Moreover, he told reporters, the province's economy "is going so well there is a lack of employees in sectors and regions across Quebec. For us, what's essential is not to strangle the economic development that we want to see in Quebec with immigration policies that don't work."
Jolin-Barrette said his government will begin public consultations soon on immigration targets for the period after 2019. He indicated the government could be open to increasing the numbers again starting in 2020.