Once wary of immigrants, Canadian town sends out global labor SOS

By Julie Gordon and Allison Lampert

OTTAWA/MONTREAL (Reuters) - Herouxville, a small town in Canada's Quebec, hit the headlines 15 years ago when it issued a code of conduct for would-be immigrants, warning them not to stone women or burn them alive, and to only cover their faces at Halloween.

Fast forward to 2022, and it's actively courting new arrivals.

The town council's once deep-seated fear over accommodating immigrants at the expense of its French-speaking Quebec identity has given way to a more pressing concern: a need for more families to help fill jobs, attend its schools and sustain its population.

Herouxville now wants to be known for its inclusion. It's considering measures like subsidized housing to lure more immigrants.

"A new family, no matter where they are from, if we can welcome them here we are pleased to do it," said Bernard Thompson, mayor of the town of 1,300 people in central Quebec. "The needs are huge in the rural areas."

Herouxville's outreach is a response to a wider quandary facing Quebec, Canada and many other countries, to varying degrees, as governments from London and Washington to Canberra and Tokyo balance public and political pressure to curb immigration against crippling labor shortages.

Ageing populations, a surge in workers retiring and COVID travel and business chaos are among factors contributing to the staff crunch hitting both low-paid and skilled occupations, from hospitality and manufacturing to transport and agriculture.

Canada has the worst labor shortages in the Western world, according to the latest OECD data from late 2021. Its plight has been exacerbated by a record wave of retirements this year. The problem is particularly dire in rural Quebec, often overlooked by a limited pool of newcomers who prefer to stay in Montreal.

The latest Canadian census data puts new numbers to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's drive to ramp up immigration to plug the staff and skills gaps, which economists say are pushing up wages and threaten to drag down productivity.

Immigrants now account for 23% of Canada's population, up from 21.9% in 2016, with newcomers accounting for 80% of the country's labor force growth over the last five years, the census released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday showed.

The census also paints a portrait of urban landings, with more than 90% of recent immigrants living in a city, leaving smaller towns and rural areas grappling to attract newcomers to replace aging factory workers, grocery clerks and doctors.

QUEBEC'S IMMIGRANT CAP

Quebec, a mostly French-speaking province with broad control over its own immigration policy, is resisting change more than elsewhere in Canada. Just 14.6% of its 8.3 million people were born overseas, far below the national average, the new data showed.

The Coalition Avenir Quebec government was re-elected this month pledging to cap permanent arrivals at 50,000 a year to safeguard the region's language and culture. Immigration has been kept flat at around that level for years, even as Canada's has risen 49% since Trudeau's Liberals took office in late 2015.

Reflecting torn local sentiment, Quebec Premier Francois Legault has described immigrants as a source of wealth, though has also said that allowing more people in without ensuring they speak French would be "suicidal".

But Legault extended an olive branch to immigrants last week, setting a cabinet that included a trilingual immigration minister and a Black anti-racism minister.

Quebec's immigration ministry didn't respond to a query on the arrival caps and labor challenges for this article.

Economic reality is biting.

Quebec had 246,300 job vacancies as of July 2022 and just 185,100 unemployed people. The labor gap is particularly dire in manufacturing, where the region's industry association estimating staff shortages had cost them C$18 billion ($13 billion) in two years.

"Our labor force participation is under more pressure than elsewhere, because we are just not seeing the foreign workers to replace those that are retiring," said Jimmy Jean, chief economist at financial services firm Desjardins Group in Montreal.

Jean said he expected the Quebec government to come under pressure from businesses to raise the immigration cap, adding that the province risked being left behind economically by neighboring Ontario and other large provinces Alberta and British Columbia.

CODE 'A HISTORICAL DOCUMENT'

It's Quebec's rural towns that are feeling the most acute pain as they have far less migrant pulling power than diverse Montreal, the province's biggest city, which itself faces deep labor shortages.

That's why local authorities are taking it upon themselves to roll out the red carpet to newcomers in places like Herouxville, which has long abandoned its code of conduct for immigrants.

Mayor Thompson said the code - unanimously approved by the town council in 2007 - was consigned to the town archives in 2010 by the council that he has run since 2009.

"It was never a legal document ... and it is now a historical document," he added. "It's been a long time since the citizens and my town put this episode aside."

Indeed, the surrounding Mauricie region has launched itself into wooing immigrants. Villages have formed committees tasked with helping newcomers find everything from housing to halal food.

In nearby Shawinigan, home to 50,000 people, immigrants are encouraged to take trips to lumberjack villages, try activities like curling, and send their kids to summer camp for the Canadian wilderness experience. Another campaign has put immigrant faces on buses.

In the town of St. Tite, Walid Gasmi works at metal works firm Acier Rayco after moving to Canada with his wife just before the pandemic. While many of his Algerian friends prefer bustling Montreal, Gasmi loves the opportunities he's found in St. Tite, a town known for its annual western festival.

"Here, they give people a chance: they train them; they invest in human resources," he said.

Acier Rayco President Eric St-Laurent said he has enough work to hire six more people and he'd happily take qualified immigrants to fill open roles, even if they don't initially speak French. "It's not a major problem for us."

Quebec appears to have had some success in promoting French-speaking with its immigration caps. The new census data showed 28.7% of recent immigrants to the province spoke French as their first language, up from 25.7% in 2016.

But most of the province's newcomers still cite a foreign language as their native tongue.

Éva-Marie Nagy-Cloutier, human resource coordinator at snowblower maker Les Machineries Pronovost in St. Tite, is similarly flexible on language, but said new arrivals need support.

When company workers had to isolate after arriving from Tunisia during COVID-19, people in the town rallied to help with supplies, she said.

A TEMPORARY FIX

With factory jobs piling up, Quebec's manufacturers argue the province needs to follow the lead of other provinces and expand its intake of skilled permanent residents.

As new permanent immigration has remained essentially flat since 2015, the province has leaned on temporary foreign workers to fill its vacancies, with those permits up 163.9% over the same period.

Many employers now find themselves reliant on this temporary labor. "Help wanted" signs proliferate across shops and restaurants in the towns and villages of Quebec's western Outaouais region.

Manuela Teixeira, who moved to Canada from Portugal as a child and now runs six businesses in the resort town of Old Chelsea, said she hired 11 temporary workers in Morocco months ago but is still waiting on paperwork for eight of them.

It's a struggle to fill service jobs, particularly after COVID lockdowns led many workers to move to other industries, and it's not work that can be automated she said.

"The French language needs to be protected because it's part of the richness of the country," she added. "But I don't think we should be afraid of people who come from abroad."

(Reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Pravin Char)