Another Quebec election, another hue-and-cry debate on immigration. Arguing over whether to increase or decrease the annual cap on incoming immigrants, the main political parties in the 2022 Quebec election—egged on by the media—have yet again made immigration a key issue on the campaign trail.
In the latest episode of this ongoing saga, Premier François Legault, leader of the right-wing nationalist party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), had the gall to link immigrants to violence during a media scrum on Sep. 6. A journalist asked him what he thought of Trudeau’s immigration policy (a question that derailed the press conference’s intended topic on education and agriculture), to which Legault responded: “Quebeckers are peaceful. They don’t like bickering. They don’t like extremists. They don’t like violence. So we have to make sure we keep it that way.”
Legault was forced to make a public apology that same night, but this did not stop him from doubling down on anti-immigrant rhetoric a week later as he expressed concern over how raising the immigration cap presents a threat to so-called “national cohesion”.
Before we go any further, we need to ask ourselves: What is really at stake in this debate over immigration thresholds? Is there really a difference between the CAQ’s current policy of keeping the cap at 40,000 and the Parti Québécois’s (PQ) call for reducing it to 35,000, or the Quebec Liberal Party’s (PLQ) proposal of raising it to 70,000, or Québec Solidaire’s to 80,000? Behind the smokescreen of fighting over letting in—or keeping out—new citizens lies the ugly truth that, as a whole, this debate only serves to stoke anti-immigrant hatred and divide the working class.
Immigration debates have been at the heart of Quebec politics for years now. In his 2018 campaign, Legault made the issue a hot topic when he vowed to limit the immigrant influx from 50,000 to 40,000 annually, and promised that all newcomers would have to pass a “Quebec values” test. The PQ has also called for lowering the influx for years.
Legault’s platform, then as in now, represents an ongoing tendency in the nationalist movement to whip up the threat of the foreign bogeyman flooding into the province, clearing out the French-speaking minority who is allegedly vanishing. This identity-based nationalism took root after the 1995 referendum with the nationalist movement having to reinvent itself as interest in the federalism-sovereignty debate declined. Since then, the PQ and then the CAQ, as the main nationalist parties, have been increasingly focusing on narrow questions of Quebec “identity”, warning of the threat it faces from immigration so they can shore up support among francophone workers.
The loudest and crassest among these right-wing nationalists is pundit Mathieu Bock-Côté. If we were to base ourselves on his Twitter feed, we would be under the impression that “woke” politicians have blindly opened the gateway to extremist hell, allowing non-French-speaking veiled demons to invade the province with the aim of eradicating any remnants of true Québécois values.
The battle cry over Quebec “values” and “identity” also formed the background for the endless debate over religious symbols in the province, which culminated in the adoption of the infamous Bill 21 in 2019, banning public-sector employees like teachers, judges, and cops from wearing religious symbols on the job. In this case, as with the current fuss over immigration, the aim is to distract voters from real issues like the housing crisis, cuts to health care, education, and so on; issues that would unite them beyond religious identity or citizenship status against the ruling class whose politicians have been incapable of solving any of these problems. These debates also have catastrophic consequences on racial and religious minorities who get harassed, intimidated, scapegoated.
We have come to expect xenophobic comments from right-wing nationalists like Legault, who distract voters with concoctions of immigrants threatening “national cohesion”, even as these same working immigrants were part of the glue that held society together during the 2020 crisis.
But make no mistake, the Liberals are no better. Dominique Anglade, the leader of PLQ, played up her own identity as a child of immigrants to attack Legault, deflecting away from her own party’s hypocritical history on the issue. When last in power, the PLQ toyed with issues of “identity” when they put forward Bill 62, their own version of the religious symbols ban. Liberals love to paint themselves as friends of immigrants and oppressed minorities, especially during election season, but once in power they have no qualms jumping on the same scapegoating wagon as the right-wing nationalists if it serves their interests.
The socialist answer
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for the left-wing party Québec Solidaire (QS), has rightfully denounced Legault’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. He spoke out against the CAQ leader, decrying how he “always talks about [the question] as a threat”. Meanwhile, QS proposes the highest immigration cap among the main parties (to 80,000), but is that really a distinct alternative to the PLQ’s 70,000?
GND also recently said that “we deserve a government who sees immigrants as a source of wealth”. Guess which party published an online article titled “Labour Shortage—Foreign workers are a source of wealth for our rural areas” as part of their campaign? Surely GND does not mean he wishes to see the PLQ in power, and yet here they are, claiming pretty much the same thing as him. In concrete terms, the Liberals’ proposed increase—with its hope of dealing with the labour shortage—really aims to enact the bosses’ agenda, who have been urging all politicians to raise the immigration targets so as to help fill 220,000 employment vacancies.
To distinguish themselves as a real workers’ alternative to the Liberals, as solid fighters against the right’s scapegoating and fear-mongering, QS should not simply propose the highest cap on the immigrant influx, but must refuse the terms of the debate, as if it was merely a question of arriving at a correct number of immigrants.
Capitalists have always used national divisions and borders to pit workers against each other and drive our wages down, whether it is by demanding lower wages with threats to offshore factories to countries with lower standards of living, or by using immigrants as a source of cheap labour. But the solution is neither to accept the right-wing notion of restricting the influx of immigration, nor to accept the Liberals’ “enlightened” proposal of a higher cap on immigration. That would be falling for the trap of basing our demands within the limits of the capitalist system itself.
In fact, while capitalist parties discuss the degree to which the movement of people should be restricted, they never talk about limiting the movement of capital. Immigrants for them are simply a source of labour, to be increased or decreased according to their needs, and to be scapegoated to divide workers. That is why Marxists oppose immigration controls altogether. The only limits to taking in immigrants are those imposed by capitalism. The truth is that there is more than enough wealth to welcome all those who need to come here, but the problem is that this wealth currently remains in a tiny number of hands. To cut through the smokescreen deliberately fomented by the capitalist parties, we need a voice explaining that capitalism is at the root of the “problem” of immigration. Until then, they will periodically use this issue to divide us and score cheap political points by scapegoating oppressed minorities.