The Big Read

Will Quebec’s controversial immigration reforms undermine its booming tech sector?

A man wears a yarmulke during a demonstration opposing the Quebec government's newly tabled Bill 21 in Montreal, Sunday, April 14, 2019. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
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Adrien Ali Taïga really likes Montreal—and that’s a good thing for Montreal. The 25-year-old student moved to the city in 2016, drawn in part by the reputation of his fellow Frenchman Yoshua Bengio, the scientific director of Montreal’s Mila, the world-renowned AI and deep learning research centre. 

Now a Mila student himself, Ali Taïga is 18 months from earning his PhD in reinforcement learning. The degree, he says with a certain embarrassment, will likely earn him a job with a six-figure salary. He’d hoped that job would be in his adopted city. 

Then, suddenly, his long-term future in Quebec became murky. On November 1, the provincial government announced changes to its Programme de l’expérience québécoise (PEQ) program, which offered a fast track to permanent residency for temporary workers and international students studying in Quebec. Only those who studied or worked in government-approved sectors could apply. Artificial intelligence was not on the list. 

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The government has since backtracked on its plan, though not before it spooked many current and prospective students in the tech sector and beyond. Montreal immigration lawyer Daniel Levy says he was “inundated” with calls from panicked clients. 

Yet Ali Taïga was never particularly panicked. Though he likes Montreal, he says he can just as easily earn that six-figure salary elsewhere. “There are industrial laboratories in my field in the United States, Toronto, Alberta, Paris, Zurich, Berlin, Amsterdam, Asia,” he says. “Everywhere in the world, in fact.” 

Talking Point

Though Quebec’s nationalist CAQ government has backtracked on limits to a program that fast-tracks international students and temporary workers to permanent residency, the province’s changing tone on immigration—fewer people admitted each year, and those who are will be required to pass a values test—has aggravated some key members of its post-secondary education community and its fast-growing tech sector. One recent report warns the lower immigration targets, plus the province’s aging population, will “limit the province’s potential output” and “constrain real economic growth.”

As “the driving force behind rising rental rates and falling vacancy,” as a recent CBRE report puts it, the tech sector is home to exactly the kinds of opportunities Quebec Premier François Legault had in mind when, in June, he said he had an “obsession” with creating well-paying jobs in Quebec.

Yet as Ali Taïga’s case shows, they are also eminently transferable throughout the world.  

And though it was aborted after a week of wretched headlines, critics say the government’s attempts to reform the PEQ program has nonetheless had an enduring chilling effect on those in the tech sector, and has given the province a handicap in the highly competitive race to bring people here. “We’re creating kind of a wall here with these policies,” says Martha Crago, vice-principal of research and innovation at McGill University. 

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Quebec’s economy is doing well—incredibly well. The province has had three straight years of growth above two per cent, a phenomenon not seen in Quebec in two decades. Several of its far-flung regions have posted the fastest growth in the entire country, according to a recent Desjardins report. At five per cent, “we’ve never seen the unemployment rate as low as it is today in the province,” says Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada.

Artificial intelligence, a wonky aspirational plaything batted about by Montreal-based academics hardly a decade ago, has since become a lucrative part of the city’s DNA—and, with Mila, a major draw for international talent seeking to further its study.

Yet while it has overseen at least part of that growth, the nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government elected in October 2018 has also introduced identity-based measures that many in tech say have hamstrung the sector’s ability to attract the best and brightest. 

During last year’s provincial election, Legault’s CAQ party promised to reduce the number of immigrants allowed into the province by 20 per cent to 40,000 in 2019, in part to “better address the needs of the job market across Quebec,” as he put it.

Once in power, the CAQ government enacted Bill 21, the so-called “laïcité law” that forbids certain public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols. It has been criticized as a legislated attack on minority rights in the province by the English Montreal School Board, the United Nations and a host of organizations in between.

Francois Legault, premier of Quebec, speaks during a press conference after a meeting of the Council of the Federation, which comprises all 13 provincial and territorial leaders, in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

And starting on New Year’s Day, aspiring immigrants will have to pass a values test in order to obtain a selection certificate, which is necessary to obtain permanent residency in the province. (Sample question: “True or false: In Quebec, women have the same rights as men, and this equality is written into law.”)

The government’s shifting perspective on immigration was reflected in a change to the name of the ministry itself. Under the previous Liberal administration, it had been the Ministère de l’Immigration, de la Diversité et de l’Inclusion; the CAQ renamed it Immigration, Francisation et Intégration Quebec. 

Among the government’s critics is Louis Têtu—who you’d think would be one of its most ardent supporters. President of Coveo, a billion-dollar force in AI-powered search and personalization services, and a self-described economic nationalist, Têtu personifies made-in-Quebec business might. And as home to a raft of software developers who earn an average of nearly $77,000 a year, Coveo is a testament to Legault’s oft-repeated “quality jobs” mantra. 

Yet in an interview with The Logic, Têtu can barely contain his frustration. The Legault government, he says, has made Quebec less attractive for well-educated immigrants.

“Anything that constrains immigration is stupid. We need it. We’re lacking talent,” Têtu says. “The closed-mindedness when it comes to immigration and diversity doesn’t do well for our image. Economically, it doesn’t make sense either. [Legault] is fulfilling an electoral promise made to people in the regions. It’s the identity card, it’s politically catchy, and if you want to talk to a certain base, speak about identity—and immigration touches identity.”

The government’s attempts to change the PEQ system came even as Quebec continues to harvest bumper crops of international students from its universities. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of temporary residents with study permits in Quebec increased by nearly 45 per cent to 43,680, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. 

“Quebec, in many respects, is supply-constrained. What that means is that the province would be able to produce more if it had the right skilled workers in the right places. We hear this all over the province in retail and in manufacturing and transportation, and of course in the tech sector,” says the Conference Board’s Antunes.

Indeed, the lack of employees is a problem most pronounced for businesses outside Montreal—often in the very regions where support for Legault’s CAQ is at its strongest. “It’s not Coveo that has the problem. We’re in cloud computing and AI. We have people lining up to work here. But if you’re a small manufacturer, something a little less sexy, you still need that digital transformation,” Têtu says.

Stung by the criticism, the Quebec government has since massaged its messaging, in part by restoring the immigration levels it had promised to reduce, to great fanfare during the election. “We need to streamline our processes to make the ministry more agile, more flexible and that works in collaboration with the concerned parties,” says immigration ministry spokesperson Marc-André Gosselin. 

Levy wonders if it’s too late. “If you are going to restrict occupations and say that certain occupations are no longer going to apply, it comes down to confidence in the government. Why would I believe that this time, next year, you’re not going to put my occupation on the list?”

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Meanwhile, the nativist drumbeat of some of the province’s highest-profile columnists continues apace. Quebec’s labour shortage, wrote the Journal de Montréal’s Mathieu Bock-Côté, is an “ideological illusion” perpetrated in part by the “multiculturalist left” that will only lead to the “Anglicization of Quebec.”

If it is an illusion of the “multiculturalist left,” however, their number apparently includes the Conference Board of Canada. The Canadian economic outlook report it released last month warns the province will likely suffer immediate consequences as a result of its immigration policy, leading to “much softer population growth” and a corresponding one percentage point decrease in growth next year. 

Combined with Quebec’s aging population, the report warns, reduced immigration targets “will limit labour force growth going forward and will exacerbate labour shortages in the short run.” And that in turn will “limit the province’s potential output, which will constrain real economic growth moving forward.” 

Ali Taïga hasn’t yet figured out where in the world he’s going to pursue that six-figure salary, but he remains a bit mystified about the province he’s come to adore. “The governments of Quebec and Canada have invested millions to develop the AI sector and attract important researchers,” he says. “It would be a shame to not profit from the fruits of all this, no?”