The Urbanization of Immigrants

By Colin McGregor                         

It’s pretty well known that the vast majority of immigrants in North America choose to live in large metropolitan areas. This creates a lot of issues for our society, and puts a strain on our urban resources.

About three-quarters of Canada’s immigrants live in the country’s three largest cities of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, says Statistics Canada. Most of the rest are to be found in Alberta, with its lucrative jobs in the oil and gas sector. In 2018-19, permanent and temporary immigrants accounted for almost all the population growth in our three largest cities.

A total of 90,900 people coming from other countries settled in Quebec from July 1st, 2021 to June 30th, 2022.

From July 1st 2019 to June 30th 2020, 84.3% of new immigrants to Quebec settled in the Montreal metropolitan area. Quebec’s other large urban centres (Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Gatineau, Trois-Rivières and Saguenay) accommodated 12.9% of these immigrants, whereas only 2.8% settled outside of one of these metropolitan areas.

According to the 2016 census, even though most immigrants lived in Montréal (52.3%), Brossard had the highest percentage of immigrants in terms of its total population (38.5%).

It’s a worldwide trend: in the United States, 92% of immigrants live in an urban area. It’s the same thing in Europe, and in all of the world’s richest nations. Why?

The availability of well-developed social networks is often cited as a cause. Other research suggests that it’s because of the economic opportunities offered in urban areas.

In many cases, the employment opportunities available in the regions do not correspond to the profiles of immigrants established in Montreal. These rural jobs are usually for the unqualified. According to the 2016 census, 40% of immigrants between the ages of 25 and 64 possess a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to a little less than 25% of Canadians born in this country.

A 30-Year-Old Plan

The question of the number of immigrants in Montreal compared with the rest of the province is nothing new. At the beginning of the 1990s, attracting immigrants to Quebec’s regions became a provincial government priority.

An action plan involving 43 government departments and organizations was published in 1991. In 1992, a document presented orientations for a regional spreading out of immigration. Then in 1993, an action plan for regionalization was made public.

There is also a Ministerial Action Plan on Regionalizing Immigration in Quebec aimed at attracting new immigrants to Quebec’s regions. The idea is to act, preferably outside of Canada, to increase the efficiency of regionalization efforts.

On the Federal level, there is something called a Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot project. Canada is working with smaller outlying communities in Ontario, Western Canada and the three Territories to attract and retain qualified foreign workers.

Why don’t governments enact laws that force immigrants to live in rural areas?

The freedom to live wherever you want within Canada’s borders is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These rights are called “mobility rights”. Citizens and permanent residents have the right to live and work wherever they want in Canada. So a government can’t tell people where to live. This greatly limits the actions any government can take to move immigrants out of major cities.

According to Myriam Simard, retired professor at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, in 1979 and 1980 the massive arrival of “boat people” refugees from South-East Asia constituted a first attempt by governments to “Demontrealize” immigration. Out of the 12,700 immigrants who came to Quebec, half were settled outside of Montreal. After two years, many of these people had moved to Montreal or had left Quebec. Could government have done more to motivate these South-East Asians to stay in the countryside?

In the most recent Quebec action plan, there are a lot of partnerships with municipalities. The idea is to “propose innovative solutions so that immigration can contribute to the vitality of the countryside.” This program involving welcoming communities has been in play for at least a decade.

Indeed, any change of residence has to be enticed voluntarily, not carried out by decree.

How can we assure that immigrants are offered a just place in our society? The platform of one provincial opposition party, Quebec Solidaire, maintains that “In liberal societies, immigration policies are determined in large measure by the workforce needs of the job market.”

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