Quebec has had its own immigration department for more than 50 years, and for almost as many years Quebecers have heard about special agreements between Quebec and Canada under which Quebec “controls” its immigration. It is only natural, it is assumed, that this “distinct society,” recognized as a nation by the Parliament of Canada, should be able to develop and implement the policies relating to the number and types of immigrants that it receives, for the benefit of both the new arrivals and their hosts.

But is this really the case? To what extent does Quebec in fact control its immigration? To answer this, we need to look at several aspects that underpin the processes whereby immigrants are selected and welcomed. Immigration is a complex reality, and distinctions need to be made between those who arrive to work permanently in Quebec, those who arrive as refugees, those who present themselves at the border and request asylum, those who are in Quebec temporarily for various reasons and those who come to join their family.

I start from the assumption that immigration policy for Quebec should strive to achieve the goals of a harmonious, fair and just, secure and healthy society, in which French, as the common language, contributes to a shared sense of belonging to a community whose members have well-defined rights and responsibilities. An overview of an integrated immigration policy covering all aspects of migration is provided in box 1.

The Quebec government controls relatively few aspects of such a comprehensive immigration policy. The Canadian government has exclusive control over duration, categories of permanent immigration, conditions relating to temporary immigration, entry, expulsions and citizenship. Except for Quebec’s “selection grid” for admitting skilled workers and integration services for newcomers, the policies and procedures of the two governments often overlap and can even be contradictory.

Legal Framework

The basis of jurisdiction in immigration matters in Canada is found in section 95 of the British North America Act of 1867:

In each Province the Legislature may make Laws in relation … to Immigration into the Province; and it is hereby declared that the Parliament of Canada may from Time to Time make Laws in relation … to Immigration into all or any of the Provinces; and any Law of the Legislature of a Province relative … to Immigration shall have effect in and for the Province as long and as far only as it is not repugnant to any Act of the Parliament of Canada.

It is clear then that both governments may legislate in matters of immigration, but all Quebec laws and regulations in this field must be consistent with all the laws of Canada. In addition, article 91 of the Canadian Constitution states that the Parliament of Canada is solely responsible for “Naturalization and Aliens” which gives it authority over citizenship and the “conditions for entering and remaining in Canada.”1

The other key document setting out the specific roles of the two governments is the Canada-Quebec Accord Relating to Immigration and Temporary Admission of Aliens signed in February 1991. It specifies that the integration services offered by Quebec and financed by the Agreement must “correspond in their entirety to those offered by Canada in the rest of the country.” In addition, section 29 states that “nothing in this Accord shall be construed as restricting the right of Canada to provide services to Canadian citizens relating to multiculturalism or to promote the maintenance and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”

Permanent Immigration

Annual number of admissions: Planning for permanent immigration involves the two governments establishing on a multiyear and yearly basis the minimum and maximum number of immigrants to be admitted to their respective territories. Article 7 of the Canada-Quebec Accord stipulates that “Québec undertakes to pursue an immigration policy that has as an objective the reception by Québec of a percentage of the total number of immigrants received in Canada equal to the percentage of Québec’s population compared with the population of Canada.” According to article 5, Canada takes into consideration Quebec’s advice on the number of immigrants that it wishes to receive.

The numbers matter. If Quebec does not receive the number of immigrants corresponding to its share of the Canadian population, the proportion of its population in Canada will decrease. The population of Quebec determines the number of Quebec seats in Parliament and hence the influence of MPs from Quebec, and is a factor in the calculation of certain grants and transfers from Ottawa. So there is not only a legal but also a political and financial incentive for Quebec to maintain relatively high permanent immigration levels.

This being said, Quebec has never reached this threshold. Its admissions have always been 2 to 6 percentage points lower than its share of the population. In 2018, the population of Quebec was 22.7 per cent of that of Canada, but Quebec received barely 16 per cent of immigrants.2 This is one of the explanations for the fact that Quebec’s share of the Canadian population has fallen from 27 per cent in 1976 to less than 23 per cent in 2018. To fulfill its election promise to lower the immigration threshold in 2019 to 40,000 people, admissions to Quebec under the CAQ government in 2019 will be around 12 per cent of Canadian admissions. The Canadian maximum is set at 350,000 and the Quebec maximum at 42,000.3 The number required for Quebec to reach its share of Canadian immigration in 2019 would be close to 80,000.

Categories: Applications for Canadian permanent immigration fall into several categories, the three main ones being economic, family reunification and humanitarian. The economic and humanitarian categories are broken down into subcategories. The humanitarian category includes those privately or collectively sponsored, government-assisted refugees selected abroad, and individuals who request asylum after arriving in the country. The economic category is composed of skilled workers and businesspeople. A few years ago, the government of Canada ended its Immigrant Investor Program, but maintained the subcategory, allowing Quebec to continue to accept applications under of its own Investor Program (box 2).

According to article 14 of the Canada-Quebec Agreement, “Canada has sole responsibility for the establishment of selection criteria for family class immigrants and Québec shall be responsible for the application of those criteria, if any, with respect to such immigrants destined to Québec.” The role of Quebec comes down to an assessment of the sponsor’s capacity to support the family member.

As for the humanitarian category, Canada defines refugee in accordance with its international obligations and the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. (Because of its provincial status, Quebec does not participate in the international forums which adopt these conventions and obligations.) Quebec reviews the undertakings of private group sponsors and signs funding agreements with organizations that help settle government-assisted refugees. As for those from abroad who claim refugee status once on Canadian soil, commonly called asylum seekers, article 20 of the agreement is very clear: “Where permanent resident status is granted to a person already in Québec who is recognized as a refugee, Québec’s consent shall not be required.”

Most of Quebec’s influence in the selection of newcomers is found in the economic category, and particularly the subcategory of skilled workers who are subject to the Quebec point system. The factors that make it feasible to accumulate points on the Quebec grid are similar to those found on the Canadian grid: training, work experience, age, language skills, prior stay or family in Quebec (a factor designed to gauge the potential of the candidate to adapt to Quebec society), and verified job offer.

Quebec establishes its grid according to its specific needs. Points awarded for training and experience are based on Quebec labour-market demand. Quebec gives more weight to French-language skills under the skilled workers subcategory, which makes it possible to ensure that overall admissions in general include a majority with a knowledge of French. Language skills are not a criterion in the family reunification or humanitarian categories.

Quebec selects individuals with characteristics that allow them to settle into and contribute to Quebec society fairly quickly with a minimum of government intervention. Typically they are well educated, have work experience, are trained in fields in demand in Quebec, are of working age and, often, have young children, which encourages long-term residence. They are therefore well placed to contribute to the ongoing development of Quebec, as well as to the sustainability of the French language.

The goal of the Quebec government is to ensure that a large majority of total admissions are in the economic category. However, Quebec does not entirely control the number of admissions in the categories controlled by the federal government. If Ottawa decides to undertake a blitz to process a backlog of requests for family reunification in Quebec or if, as a result of external pressures, it makes a commitment to welcoming a larger number of refugees or asylum seekers than originally planned, these increases will force a decrease in the proportion of admissions to the economic category so as to respect the total admission threshold established by Quebec.

The effects of this interconnection among the categories can be readily observed. In 2015, 66.6 per cent of admissions to Quebec were in the economic category; this share dropped to 57.1 per cent in 2018. The percentage of people admitted who had a knowledge of French was lower as a result. In 2014, 75 per cent of admissions in the skilled workers subcategory declared that they had French skills, so the percentage of francophones among all admissions reached 58.6 per cent. In 2018, the percentage of francophones among skilled workers declined to 65.4 per cent, but the percentage of admissions in the economic category also went down, resulting in an overall proportion of French speakers admitted that year of only 48 per cent.

Admission and arrival of immigrants: It is also important to look at what happens at the moment newcomers arrive in the country. How are they welcomed and informed about their rights and responsibilities and the government services available to them, as well as how to access them?

In other provinces, this service is typically offered by a local organization subsidized by the Canadian government at a counter space in international airports. In Quebec, there is a small, little-known team of Quebec officials that provides a reception service at Montreal’s Trudeau Airport. This team welcomes people who have obtained their permanent residence visa irrespective of category. It provides basic information on government services and even offers to set up appointments for integration services, enrolment in French-language courses offered by the Quebec immigration department and application for their health insurance card. It also updates the personal file of people already in the Quebec immigration ministry information system.

The Quebec government has recently announced the expansion of this service to include domestic flights (since many immigrants destined for Quebec arrive first at Vancouver or Toronto) and to assign an immigration agent to accompany the newcomer in his or her first steps towards integration. Expansion of this service will depend on signing an agreement with the relevant federal agencies, since airports are a federal responsibility.

Quebec’s limited resources do not allow this service to be offered at other airports or to those arriving by land, nor is it available to temporary workers. An effort is made to welcome foreign students, but given the mass arrivals in August it is usually offered in a group setting rather than individually. The result is that while every newcomer arriving in Canada interacts with the Canadian government at customs and immigration, where they receive their permanent or temporary visa and security clearance, the Quebec government is able to welcome on arrival only a minority of those coming to Quebec.

A word about administrative data: The first of the 23 goals of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 19, 2018 by 152 countries, reads as follows: “Collect and utilize accurate and disaggregated data as a basis for evidence-based policies.”4

The importance of such comprehensive and reliable data cannot be overstated. Depersonalized data are an invaluable source of information about the processing of requests (processing times, acceptances, refusals, application inventories, etc. ), the numbers admitted and their characteristics (status and category, age, occupation, mother tongue, country of birth and origin, gender, city of destination, city of residence five or ten years after arrival), employment rates of native-born Canadians and immigrants, the demand for skills and training, the language of work and study, and government, community and private resources available for the integration of newcomers.

In addition, nominalized data are important to be able to follow the progress of the immigrants after arrival. Through their email addresses the government can contact the newcomers with regard to their satisfaction with the services received and their needs and expectations, and to provide information on new services. All this information helps to improve planning for the number of people to select and the services required to meet their needs.

The British North America Act states in section 91 that the Census and Statistics are under the sole purview of the Canadian government. In addition, in matters of immigration, only the Canadian government can collect data on entries to the country and the characteristics and status of people crossing Canada’s international borders. With the exception of the data derived from requests processed by its immigration ministry, Quebec is dependent on Canada for all information on admissions. Except for those who stop at its counter at the Montreal airport, Quebec has no information on when people actually arrive, which makes it very difficult to reach many newcomers at the right time with the right information.


Knowledge of the common language is the main requirement for rapid and harmonious integration. In this area, messages from Canada and Quebec conflict. English and French are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution and reinforced by the federal Official Languages Act, while the Charter of the French Language declares French the only official language in Quebec. As specified in the Canada-Quebec Accord, in return for Canada withdrawing from offering socioeconomic and linguistic integration services in Quebec and offering equivalent financial compensation, Quebec must offer services that, when considered in their entirety, correspond to the services offered by Canada in the rest of the country. Moreover, as a result of their many contacts with the Canadian government, newcomers often assume that Quebec has two official languages.

Quebec has been trying for decades to define its own approach to social cohesion, which in many respects is at odds with Canada’s multicultural approach. The 2019 Act Respecting the Laicity of the State is only the most recent initiative in this regard. Multiculturalism was enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (article 27), but has never been accepted as suiting Quebec. Upon the announcement in 1971 of the new Canadian multiculturalism policy, Quebec’s Liberal Premier at the time, Robert Bourassa, wrote to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as follows:

Concerning the principle of multiculturalism, Quebec does not adopt the approach of your government. Indeed, it appears difficult to align this notion with the Quebec reality where there the predominant population group is linguistically and culturally French … If the federal government assumes overall obligations for all the other cultures to be found in Canada, Quebec must take within its own territory, the role of prime defender of the French language and culture.5

One of the most important tools in the arsenal of a nation-state to create a sense of belonging and loyalty among its immigrant population is naturalization. As every nation does, Canada reinforces the messages of its history and values in the naturalization process, including those of bilingualism and multiculturalism. Quebec offers socioeconomic and linguistic integration services, one aspect of which sets out Quebec values, but these services are voluntary, and Quebec does not have the power to make them mandatory. Given that it does not have the data and personal information needed to reach every immigrant, especially in the family and humanitarian categories or the temporary programs, it lacks the overall resources to effectively counteract messages from the Canadian government which do not jibe with its reality.

Temporary Immigration

Temporary immigration is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Canadian government and covers a wide range of foreigners residing in Quebec. There are three general programs, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), the International Student Program and the International Mobility Program (IMP).

The number of people in Quebec each year with temporary permits is far greater than those admitted as permanent residents. On December 31, 2017, there were 107,310 people with temporary status within Quebec’s borders – 61,565 as international students, 38,535 under the IMP and 7,210 under the TFWP.6 That same year 52,388 people were admitted to Quebec as permanent residents.

According to the Accord, for those in Quebec under the International Student Program (of which the number has been steadily rising since 2012) and the TFWP program, the Quebec government must consent to their admission to the territory. A process of validation of the requests gives rise to the issuance of a Certificat d’Acceptation du Québec. This process results in some, though limited, information being filed in the ministry’s information system. However, people who come through the IMP (more than 35 per cent of temporary workers in Quebec on December 31, 2017) do not need a work permit, in large part because of various international agreements signed by the Canadian government. Quebec has no say in these issues and therefore does not have its own data for them. In fact, a recent OECD report on the Canadian immigration system criticizes the fact that even the Canadian government has no useful data on the people in the country under the IMP program.

For several years, the Quebec government has made significant efforts to increase temporary immigration and to convince people with temporary status (workers or students) to apply for permanent status. A special program, the Programme de l’Expérience Québécoise (PEQ), based loosely on the federal government’s Canadian Experience Category, offers a fast track to permanent selection by Quebec for eligible applicants with temporary status. Applications under the PEQ are processed within a month, and must show proof of French-language skills. In recent years, the vast majority of people selected by Quebec have had a temporary status at the time of their selection. This has been an important goal of the ministry’s strategic plan.

It is not difficult to understand why the government would want to meet its permanent immigration goals with individuals who already have a job in Quebec or a diploma from a Quebec institution of higher education. Temporary immigration applications are processed faster than permanent ones by the Canadian and Quebec governments. Companies can potentially fill positions within a few weeks or months rather than the two or three years required to process permanent immigration applications. In addition, they cost little or nothing in integration or francization services because they are not eligible to receive these services as long as they have a temporary status. Recently, the government announced that certain services will be opened to some temporary workers, but details are sketchy.

There are some disadvantages to this, however. These individuals are not selected using the Quebec point system. They come into Quebec through Canadian government programs and, in the case of TFWP, on the basis of the ebb and flow of the short-term labour market. In this sense, it is effectively private enterprises that are selecting the foreign workers who can come to Quebec. People with temporary status do not need to know French to reside and work in Quebec. Moreover, as already mentioned, the Quebec government has little or no contact with them either on their arrival or afterwards to assist them in finding the services for which they may be eligible.

Another relevant consideration is that temporary immigrants who apply for permanent status in Quebec have been in the province for at least a year, often several years, and during that time, under the French Language Charter, they can enroll their children in English schools. The data reveals that this is a choice more and more of them are making. A recent study by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française presents figures on the numbers of francophones, anglophones and allophones in public preschool, primary and secondary education in Quebec. It shows that between 1990 and 2001, the percentage of children enrolled in the English public schools thanks to their temporary status was 4.8 per cent. This percentage more than doubled to 11.4 per cent for the cohort from 2002 to 2015.7

When these people are selected for permanent status by Québec, this special authorization is no longer available, but data have not been published on the number of exemptions offered by the Ministry of Education to enable these young people to continue their education in the English school system. It is also not known how many have graduated from high school before obtaining permanent status. Moreover, unless and until the issue comes before the courts again, these children pass their eligibility to enter Quebec’s English public-school system to their brothers, sisters and offspring.

Can Quebec Remain a Distinct Francophone Society?

Overall, Quebec’s control over immigration-related policies is not sufficient to ensure its position as a distinct francophone society. It is constrained by international agreements and treaties negotiated unilaterally by the Canadian government within the framework of an immigration system established by it. The Quebec government is unable to adequately receive and thus integrate all foreign nationals arriving on its territory with the powers and resources at its disposal. Much of the data essential to the planning and implementation of a comprehensive immigration policy are collected and controlled by the Canadian government. Finally, the message newcomers receive about Quebec’s historical, cultural, linguistic and economic specificity is blurred by their interactions with a bilingual Canadian government and its ideal of multicultural citizenship.

Is there sufficient room for improvement? Or are these limitations such as to pose the question of whether Quebec, as a province within the Canadian federal system, can hope in the long run to adequately integrate immigrants so as to remain a distinct francophone society?


Government of Canada, Acts and Regulations – Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

2 Ministère de l’Immigration, de la Diversité et de l’Inclusion du Québec, Rapports annuels de gestion, Statistics Canada, Canada’s Population Clock (Real-Time Model), Government of Canada, Permanent Residents – Monthly IRCC Updates

3 Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 2018–2019 Departmental Plan, Ministère de l’Immigration, de la Diversité et de l’Inclusion du Québec, Plan d’immigration du Québec pour l’année 2019

4 United Nations, Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, Final Draft, July 11, 2018

5 Letter from Robert Bourassa to Pierre Elliott Trudeau dated November 11, 1971, made public November 16, 1971, and published in “Multiculturalisme : de sérieuses réserves du Québec,” Le Devoir, November 17, 1971, p. 2. Author’s translation in part.

6 Christine Beausoleil, L’immigration temporaire au Québec, 2012–2017, Quebec City: Ministère de l’Immigration, de la Diversité et de l’Inclusion du Québeec, 2018

7 Charles-Étienne Olivier, Langue et éducation au Québec : éducation préscolaire et enseignement primaire et secondaire, Montreal: Office Québécois de la Langue Française, 2017