A new values declaration that immigrants to Quebec will have to sign come January is unenforceable, according to immigration experts.
Yolande James, Quebec’s Minister of Immigration, announced immigrants will have to sign a pledge affirming they respect Quebec’s values, including that men and women have the same rights, Quebec is a free and democratic society, there is a separation of church and state and French is the province’s official language. Signing the document also indicates their willingness to learn French if they don’t already know it.
The document is similar to a code of social norms for immigrants passed by the small town of Herouxville, Que., in 2007. The code informed immigrants to the town (of which there were none) that, among other things, stoning women and throwing acid on them was not acceptable. Many Muslim groups were offended by the code once it was publicized.
The provincial declaration is the result of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, a provincial inquiry on the issue of “reasonable accommodation” of cultural and religious beliefs, which came about following fervent reaction for and against the Herouxville code. The commission concluded more needed to be done to help integrate newcomers into Quebec.
Anyone who does not sign the declaration will not be allowed to immigrate to Quebec, said James.
But while the province has special dispensation from the federal government when it comes to immigration, it does not have the ability to reject immigrants in this manner, said Isabelle Dongier, an associate with law firm Fasken Martineau in Montreal.
It is also unclear how the government will ensure newcomers actually follow through on their pledges to uphold these values and learn French, said Dongier. Even if the government required new immigrants to take language tests after a given period of time in Quebec, only the federal government can revoke permanent residency status and usually only for reasons of criminal activity.
“The province just doesn’t have any power. They can’t touch your permanent residency status once you have it,” she said.
“It’s constitutionally unenforceable. It’s laughable. It’s just a political statement,” said Sergio Karas, a Toronto-based lawyer and chair of the Ontario Bar Association’s citizenship and immigration section. And once immigrants realize they can’t actually be held to what they sign, they’ll sign it even if they don’t agree, he said.
The announcement came one week before Quebec Premier Jean Charest called a provincial election, so it comes off as an attempt to win soft Parti Québécois supporters by showing them the Liberals are protecting Quebec culture and French language, said Dongier.
While not enforceable, the declaration does serve to inform potential immigrants that French is Quebec’s official language, something many people in other countries aren’t aware of, said Dongier.
“There is a willingness on the part of the immigration department to put things clearly on paper so immigrants understand they will need French if they want to adapt successfully,” she said.
However, the onus of integration and adaptation shouldn’t be laid solely on immigrants’ shoulders, said Eric Shragge, a professor of community and public affairs at Concordia University and a member of the board of directors of the Immigrant Worker Center in Montreal.
“There has to be mutual adaptation. It’s not a one-way street,” he said.
Too many immigrants come to Quebec and end up in jobs below their skill level, with low pay, and are often taken advantage of by employers, he said. If there’s going to be adaptation and change, these issues need to be resolved.
“Instead of having immigrants sign documents, maybe we should have employers sign documents and Québécois sign documents about accommodating immigrants,” he said.
“Maybe everyone has to be subject to this kind of scrutiny. And maybe employers should also have to sign documents saying they’ll respect government labour standards when dealing with immigrant labour.”
The declaration probably won’t scare away many potential Quebec immigrants because most people agree with the values laid out in the document, said Dongier. However, some might feel insulted, she said.
“Some candidates are going to feel offended that they need to be reminded or informed of things that are obvious to a lot of people,” she said. “Some people will be shocked and say, ‘Who do you think we are and where do you think we come from?’”
The Quebec declaration is just another example of local interests overriding national interests, said Karas.
“We need a consistent, national policy. That’s why I, for one, am very much opposed to all these provincial nominee programs.”
As it stands, immigration policy is very inflexible and not designed to adjust to a changing economy, he said.
The declaration is one part of a three-part plan to help immigrants better integrate into Quebec society. James also announced candidates will be able to take French courses before they leave their home country and there will be funding for employers that provide French courses to immigrants. This is particularly important because the current government-sponsored language programs aren’t accessible to immigrants working 40 or 50 hours a week and raising a family, said Shragge.
Legislation to create a program similar to the Canadian Experience Class program in the rest of Canada, which makes it easier for foreign students and temporary foreign workers to gain permanent residency, is also in the works but the election could mean it won’t be seen until early 2009, said Dongier.