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Immigrants in Quebec: needed but often unwanted as election nears

media "Hiring" signs are seen outside most businesses in the city of Saint-Georges, about 300 kilometres (185 miles) northeast of Montreal AFP

Anti-immigrant sentiment is butting up against an acute labor shortage in Canada's mostly French-speaking Quebec province ahead of a general election there on Monday.

Two of the province's four major political parties have vowed to cut immigration despite employers saying they need more than 100,000 skilled workers, amid record-low rates of unemployment.

Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), which is leading in the polls, has suggested that immigration threatens Quebec's cultural identity. He has vowed to cut it by 20 percent in 2019, if elected.

He also said he would deport any immigrants who failed a "Quebec values" test or who did not learn French within three years of arriving in the province.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, whose Liberals face an uphill re-election battle after almost 15 years in office, accused the CAQ leader of "scaremongering."

But polls show there is substantial popular support in Quebec for curbs on immigration.

A recent Leger survey for the Huffington Post found that 48 percent of Quebecers support immigration while 38 percent see it as a growing problem.

A surge in asylum seekers from the United States since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 has strained government services, fueling the anti-migrant views.

- 'Hiring' signs -

In the city of Saint-Georges, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) northeast of Montreal, "hiring" signs hang outside most businesses.

"I can understand that people want Quebecers to be hired first and foremost, which we try to do, but there's none or few available," said Louise Couture, a human resources official at semitrailer manufacturer Manac.

The regional development organization estimates that 5,000 positions for welders, machinists, cargo handlers and programmers in the area are going unfilled.

"We need to bring in a new workforce. We feel the same need in all regions of Quebec. That's why immigration is one of the solutions," the agency's Melanie Poulin told AFP.

The local unemployment rate is 2.6 percent, compared with 5.6 percent for the province and 6.0 percent for all of Canada.

A sign outside Couture's office proudly notes Manac's 82 hires since January. The company offers a starting salary that is 40 percent higher than the minimum wage -- yet that is not enough.

"Hiring foreign workers helps to meet our delivery deadlines," said Couture.

"Without immigration, we could not have the growth we currently have," said Sylvain Bernard, human resources director at OSI Machinery. "The shortage of manpower is a handicap for Quebec."

His company decided in 2012 to recruit directly from abroad and now employs six workers from Costa Rica, one from China and nine recently hired Tunisians, four of whom are still awaiting visas.

The immigration process is "so long and painful," Bernard complained.

If immigration procedures were simpler and faster, Couture said, 22 foreign workers, including a first group from Cameroon, could "start tomorrow" at Manac.

- Wedge issue -

Demographer Yves Carriere told AFP that politicians have turned immigration into a wedge issue in the coming election.

The Liberals hope to solidify their base, which includes immigrants and Quebec's anglophone minority in Montreal.

The CAQ and the Parti Quebecois, meanwhile, are targeting mostly French-speaking suburban and rural voters.

But amid the focus on language, University of Montreal professor Marie-Therese Chicha lamented how many skilled immigrants are forced to take low-paying jobs for which they are highly overqualified, because Quebec does not recognize their foreign diplomas.

Since 2015, Quebec has welcomed an average of 50,000 immigrants and refugees a year.

But the number of French-speaking newcomers has fallen from 56 percent in 2015 to 42 percent last year, and increasingly they have settled in metropolitan Montreal instead of the outlying areas where French is predominantly spoken.

Legault suggested that if the trend continues, "our grandchildren may not speak French."

Critics have called his remarks alarmist, noting that while some newcomers may never learn French, their children will all be educated in the language of Moliere.

When Ronald Carvajal, a welder, arrived from Costa Rica five years ago, he spoke French "pantoute," he said, using Quebec slang for "not at all" and speaking in a blended Latin-Quebec accent.

After intensive language courses offered by the government, he is now bilingual and is proud to be able to read the works of acclaimed French-Canadian novelists such as Michel Tremblay.

"I want to make my life here, and die here," said Carvajal, who is 33. "I would like to buy property here, to have my cottage, to retire here."

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