By Allison Lampert and Anna Mehler Paperny
MONTREAL (Reuters) -Quebec's plans to attract more French-speaking newcomers are unnerving some business owners who say they need immigrants from varied backgrounds to address a tight labor market in the Canadian province.
Unlike other provinces, Quebec gets to choose its economic immigrants. The government previously lowered the number of new permanent residents it brings in, relying more on temporary workers, and says it has increased the francophone share of economic immigrants.
Premier Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) is determined to protect French, which he says is vulnerable in mostly English-speaking North America, ahead of an Oct. 3 election.
His government announced a new minister for French and passed a sweeping law requiring, among other things, newcomers to receive most non-health services in French after six months in the province.
While Legault campaigns on attracting more francophones, some business owners warn the move could put off immigrants with critical skills. Quebec has Canada's second-highest job vacancy rate among provinces.
Montreal entrepreneur Vince Guzzo, whose businesses include restaurants and movie theaters, said he is desperate for dishwashers no matter what language they speak.
"I would download an app ... and my phone would translate it in Punjabi if I had to," Guzzo told Reuters.
According to Statistics Canada data from the fourth quarter of 2021, Quebec accounts for almost 40% of Canada's estimated 81,000 vacant manufacturing positions. Manufacturing accounted for 12.6% of Quebec's gross domestic product in 2021 - higher than any other sector.
"We’re not saying that French isn’t important. But it does become a limiting factor when we're looking to attract the best people and talent that we need," said Veronique Proulx, president of Quebec Manufacturers and Exporters.
She called Quebec's shift toward temporary work a "band-aid" for manufacturing's labor shortage. "We have some companies that are thinking of shutting down production lines."
Quebec minister Jean Boulet, who is responsible for labor and immigration, said via email that his government has taken steps to attract foreign students and lure workers in priority sectors. He said the new law would include services making it easier to learn French.
Quebec plans to take in more than 71,000 permanent residents in 2022 after immigration numbers fell to 25,225 in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Boulet said CAQ deliberately brought in fewer new permanent residents after coming to power in 2018 to help newcomers integrate, and that it is making efforts to better recognize foreign credentials.
Quebec's share of Canada’s total new permanent residents dropped to about 12.4% last year from 21.3% in 2012, according to government data.
Quebec also risks losing newcomers to other Canadian regions. About 16.3% of immigrants who came to Quebec in 2009 had left for other provinces by 2019, nearly double that of Ontario, according to Statistics Canada data.
'NOT ALWAYS REALISTIC'
Quebec has historically been a popular destination for immigrants to Canada. But changing criteria for making temporary residents permanent and long waits to gain residency could discourage newcomers, said Montreal-based immigration lawyer Rosalie Brunel.
Boulet said 84% of economic immigrants admitted in 2021 spoke French, compared with 56% in 2019.
His office said Quebec increased its francophone share through selection of applicants in certain immigration streams and by making French programs accessible to temporary residents.
Legault wants Quebec to choose people who immigrate to join their families - a power held by Canada's federal government - so it can select more French-speakers.
The head of one manufacturer said the government wants companies to recruit French-speaking workers.
Quebec said companies can also turn to alternatives such as automation.
"The dream is to have well-trained workers who are French speaking, but that's not always realistic," said Technosub Chief Executive Eric Beaupre. Technosub, based in rural Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, produces and repairs pumps for mining and other sectors.
With limited local labor, Technosub is taking on more temporary workers from Latin America and the Philippines who have needed skills and learn French on the job, he said.
Emmanuel Suerte Felipe arrived at Technosub as a temporary worker from the Philippines in 2018. His French is good enough for the job but he worries about it passing muster for permanent residency as he wants to bring his family to Quebec.
"I would love to stay here," he said. "I found my dream job."
(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Bill Berkrot)