Quebec must boost immigration levels to solve labour woes: think tank


Institut du Québec report also says province needs to demand more immigration powers from Ottawa and review its own programs.

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Quebec should boost immigration thresholds while demanding more powers from the federal government in a bid to cut “unacceptable” delays and start easing the province’s long-standing labour shortage, a new study suggests.

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Economic immigrants who apply for permanent residence in Quebec face the longest wait times in Canada, according to a report released Wednesday by the Montreal-based Institut du Québec think tank. Candidates looking to settle in Quebec can face administrative delays of as many as 37 months, compared with waits of six to 28 months in the rest of Canada, the study says. Health, security and standards checks by the federal government are the main reason for the delays, it says.

Although Quebec has the right to select its economic immigrants, Canada remains responsible for setting national immigration standards and objectives. Allowing Quebec to verify by itself the health, security and criminal records of economic immigrants would considerably speed up the bureaucratic process and improve Quebec’s attractiveness in an increasingly competitive labour market, according to Institut du Québec chief executive Mia Homsy.

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“The big issue is the length of time it takes to process immigration requests for economic immigrants,” Homsy, who co-authored the study, said in an interview. “There’s a huge attractiveness issue for Quebec when the gap with the rest of Canada gets too big. If things take too long, immigrants are just going to cross the border and settle in Ontario.”

Quebec’s programs should also be reviewed. To speed things up, Homsy and her colleagues say the province would benefit from allowing temporary workers admitted under the so-called “Quebec Experience Program” to apply for permanent residence before having accumulated up to 24 months of work experience.

As Quebec’s population ages and employers struggle to fill vacant positions, the province has been relying more and more on temporary immigration to keep businesses humming. Non-permanent residents represented 64 per cent of the net number of international immigrants in 2019 — a huge jump from the 9 per cent average recorded between 2012 and 2016.

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Long considered a weak point for Quebec, the economic integration of immigrants has made remarkable strides in recent years. Employment among Quebec immigrants aged 25 to 54 has increased by 224,000 since 2012, the study shows — a 61-per-cent surge.

Immigrants now make up 19.2 per cent of Quebec’s working population. Ten years ago, the proportion was only 12.6 per cent.

As a result, the unemployment rate for immigrants aged 25 to 54 fell to 5.3 per cent in April. A decade ago, joblessness was 12.7 per cent.

Entry wages for economic immigrants have also improved. As of 2019, they represented 98.7 per cent of the Quebec median wage, up from about 60 per cent in 2010, the study says.

Quebec’s labour market is growing increasingly tight — and many economists expect the trend to persist this decade as baby boomers retire en masse. The province’s unemployment rate, long among the highest in Canada, is now the lowest in the country. It hit a historic low of 3.9 per cent in April, 1.3 percentage points below the national average.

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At the end of 2021, there was less than one unemployed person in Quebec for each job vacancy. That compares with a ratio of five to one in 2015.

“It’s a spectacular turnaround,” Homsy said. “Economic growth has accelerated just as the population of Quebec was aging. There is huge demand for workers at the same time that more people are retiring. Employers haven’t had time to adjust.”

Despite a crying need for workers, Quebec’s regions have been unable to attract enough immigrants. Nearly 85 per cent of the immigrants who arrive each year in Quebec settle in the Greater Montreal area, the study shows. Montreal — home to about half of Quebec’s population — took in an average of 37,000 permanent immigrants annually between 2015 and 2019, while 11 of the province’s 17 administrative regions received less than 1,000.

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“In fairness, this is a phenomenon that we see everywhere,” Homsy said. “Immigrants gravitate toward big cities because these tend to offer more career opportunities. Quite often, they already have friends in big cities. All of this is difficult to replicate in the regions.”

To help solve acute labour shortages in the outlying regions, Quebec should set up a new “fast-track” program that could lead to as many as 10,000 additional temporary immigrants settling here every year, the IDQ study says. Immigrants targeted by the new program would be added to the 50,000 already admitted for permanent residence under existing programs.

Among other measures suggested by the authors, Quebec should increase the scope of international recruitment campaigns to attract more foreign students and qualified temporary workers. Another recommendation calls for the province to boost tax credits for international students who decide to settle permanently in Quebec’s regions after their studies.

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