The ritual exchange of gold fountain pens and a smiling embrace between the signatories—federal Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall and her Quebec counterpart, Monique Gagnon-Tremblay—sealed the pact.
It took place at a ceremony in Montreal last week as the federal government and Quebec signed a new immigration accord. For McDougall, the event represented the culmination of four years of intense negotiations designed to allot Quebec new powers in the selection and integration of immigrants.
But, for Gagnon-Tremblay, it was far more significant: a model upon which to build a new vision of Canadian federalism. Said the Quebec minister:
“It is an important step along that road.” And her cabinet colleague, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Gil Rémillard, echoed that view, although with a tongue-in-cheek remark, during the ceremony. Rémillard hailed the two immigration ministers as the new “mothers of Confederation.”
In the context of the great debate over Canada’s future, where symbol has become almost as important as substance, Rémillard’s remark was understandable. But even though he delivered it in jest, it did reflect an underlying reality. The agreement on immigration is, in fact, an example of the kind of fundamental restructuring of the Canadian nation that Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s government envisions. In line with proposals by his Liberal party’s constitutional committee, chaired by Montreal lawyer Jean Allaire, the new immigration accord attempts to deal with Quebec’s frustration over a key area of federal jurisdiction. The pact enhances Quebec’s control over immigration policies that directly affect the province, while at the same time narrowing the power and influence of the federal government in that field. “The immigration agreement is a very good example of the new type of arrangement we would like to see,” Allaire told Maclean’s. “If the same logic were applied to other
jurisdictions, we might be well on the way to resolving a lot of the problems we have with the existing system.”
Needs: Quebec’s immigration problems are rooted in demographics. For years, the province has been hampered by one of the lowest birthrates in North America. Quebec’s fertility rate stands at 1.5 children for each woman—well below the figure of 2.1 required to maintain the current population level. Immigration has not filled the gap either, because, in the view of Quebec authorities, federal government policies in the field are not geared to Quebec’s particular needs. In the first nine months of last year, for example, Quebec, with roughly 25 per cent of the country’s population, attracted just 18.7 g per cent of new immigrants I to Canada. Ontario, by com£ parison, received 53.3 per Ë cent in the same period.
5 The new federal-provincial
agreement is designed to help Quebec to achieve its goal of receiving one-quarter of all immigrants to Canada. Scheduled to take effect on April 1, it obliges Ottawa to consult Quebec before setting annual immigration targets and allows the province to receive up to 30 per cent of immigrants coming to Canada. Quebec also won the right to exercise exclusive responsibility in the selection of independent immigrants—those who are neither refugees nor joining close family members already in Canada. To compensate the province for the cost of taking over that responsibility, Ottawa will give it $332 million over the next four years. In addition, the agreement permits Quebec to provide its own reception centres for immigrants to the province and commits Ottawa to providing space and support services for provincial immigration officers at some Canadian embassies abroad. Six other provinces have also signed immigration agreements with the federal government over the years, but none is as far-reaching as last week’s QuebecOttawa accord.
Meanwhile, the federal government is not encouraging the province’s demands in other jurisdictions. Only last month, McDougall, who
is also responsible for employment matters, categorically refused Quebec’s request for full control over manpower and job training— another key demand of the Allaire report. She said that such an agreement would have to be part of an overall constitutional deal. And she reiterated that view last week when GagnonTremblay referred to the immigration accord as a “step.” Declared McDougall: “We are not going to rush in every Monday morning and sign a new agreement in some new area until
we have some sense of what Canada will look like with this new arrangement.”
And analysts have also raised doubts about the practical aspects of some of the more radical proposals for broader Quebec powers contained in the Allaire report. Quebec, for example, would like to see the Bank of Canada restructured to provide more regional influence on the country’s monetary policy. While the Allaire recommendations do not detail how this might be achieved, Quebec officials have
floated the idea of establishing a governing executive committee composed of members from Canada’s various regions.
But some experts say that Quebec could end up with little influence in that kind of shared arrangement. In a recent paper prepared for the Business Council on National Issues, Queen’s University law professor Daniel Soberman wrote: “There are two 20th-century examples of monetary union between two parties: those of Ireland grid Britain, and of Belgium and Luxembourg. In both cases, one party was many times larger than the other and made its own decision about monetary issues much as did an imperial power for its colonies.”
Control: Still, provincial authorities are not likely to stop insisting upon additional power in most areas of government activity. The province wants complete control of all dimensions of human-resource management—from basic public education to adult job training, unemployment insurance and welfare programs. Quebec officials claim that they need absolute authority in order to establish integrated employment strategies and eliminate wasteful duplication of federal and provincial bureaucracies. Said Allaire: “It is not only logical but, in these lean times, it also makes good economic sense. Don’t forget, we are talking about programs currently representing around $300 million annually.”
Money is a major factor in health care as well, another jurisdiction over which Quebec is seeking exclusive control. The provincial government is currently attempting a comprehensive reform of Quebec’s medicare program in an effort to combat rising costs and a declining level of service. But the proposals have run into federal resistance over a plan to discourage patients from using overburdened hospital emergency rooms by instituting user fees for non-emergency visits. Ottawa has opposed the plan because it violates the national principle of universal access to medical care. “We’re stuck between the rock and the hard place,” said Pierre Anctil, director general of the Quebec Liberal party and a key member of the Allaire commission. “The federal contribution to Quebec’s health budget amounts to approximately 37 per cent of the total. If we go ahead with the reform, we lose the federal contribution. But if we don’t, the health system will crumble under the weight of budgetary restraint.”
In fact, Quebec’s current proposals to redefine the Canadian nation reflect a preoccupation more with dollars and cents than with cultural matters. Said Allaire: “You cannot maintain a strong culture without a strong economy to support it. And this is as true for the rest of Canada as it is for Quebec.” But even among Canadians elsewhere who are concerned about the country’s current economic weakness, there is no conviction that Quebec’s proposed rearrangement of the federal government represents a solution. For now, at least, the new arrangements covering immigration provide one model for the future—but not the only one.
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