Living in New York City where immigration is considered the cornerstone of the city's character and growth, one cannot avoid to reflect on how immigration contributes to making communities stronger, more enriching and sustainable.
Many generations back, one point of entry was Ellis Island on the southern tip of New York. Here, many individuals with little more than their rudimentary garments sought opportunity and a better life. Few had barely enough money or possessions to sustain themselves for long, some contracted disease along the voyage but all came with hopes and dreams of this better life. Nowadays, rarely a week passes without Mayor Bloomberg reminding his fellow citizens how vital and important immigration has been to the U.S. and how New York is all the better for it.
My father arrived from Italy at Ellis Island at the age of 16. He then made his way to Canada and specifically to Montréal, Québec to start a new life. He had little education, no labor skills, no knowledge of French (the language of the majority in Québec) or English. Yet despite these handicaps, he was coming to join members of his family already settled in Montréal. He learnt French and English, gradually acquired the skill of shoemaking and eventually started a family and a business. That was immigration in the post-WW I period and continued that way into the modern post-WW II era.
Today, in Québec, immigration has a new face. True, there is still the reunification of families but today, newly arrived immigrants arrive with skills and assets that help respond to immediate economic needs. Skills, education, and fluency in the host society’s language have transformed immigration from more than a socio-economic phenomenon to one that meets the demographic needs of the welcoming society. Such is the case of Québec since the 1970's when the Ministry of Immigration was created.
From the 1970's on, Québec has fought for increased jurisdiction in determining the selection of immigrants based on its own criteria outside the family reunification portfolio (1978) to integrating them and potentially fast-tracking them to Canadian citizenship (1991). Yes, it has been 20 years since Québec negotiated a quasi- constitutional pact with the Canadian federal government - actually an administrative deal that cannot be changed without Québec's consent. Today, Québec cannot envisage a future without immigration and it has the powers to make it work.
While our early immigration influx came mostly from Europe, recent immigration has come mostly from the African continent, Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Haiti and Asia. Today's Québec regularly has 50,000 new immigrants arriving annually. Some are investors, some are students studying in a university and deciding to begin a life in Québec, and others have employment skills needed to meet labor shortages. All come to be a part of a society that not only welcomes them, but also a society that believes it enhances its growth, adds to its creativity and enriches the social fabric.
Immigration has a different face from the days of my dad's arrival and Québec now has a bigger say in who comes over, but the motivation for immigration remains the same - people come with hopes, dreams and the opportunity for a better life. We are all richer for that.