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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Separatism Isn't for Everyone

VERDUN, Quebec -- As cultural coordinator for a resource center for new Quebecers, Gabriel Garcia is leading an effort to bridge the gap between the growing number of immigrants here and the mostly French-speaking society into which they have moved.

But one issue is proving to be a bridge too far for the province's first-generation immigrant population: the long struggle for independence. "I realize it is important for many," said Garcia, who mainly works with people from Central and South America, voicing a sentiment shared by almost all the recent immigrants. "But for me, sovereignty is not my primary passion."

The number of immigrants entering Quebec each year has nearly doubled since the last referendum on independence in 1995 failed by a razor-thin margin, and immigrants now represent more than 10 percent of the electorate.

That rapidly expanding demographic consists of people who have no historical stake in the traditional French-English divide. The evolving society is one of many challenges facing the political vehicle of the separatist movement, the Parti Quebecois, after the resignation on May 8 of the party's leader, Andre Boisclair.

Boisclair, 41, became increasingly unpopular during his 18 months at the party's helm, especially after elections in March when the Parti Quebecois finished in third place, its worst showing in more than 30 years.

Although French-speaking Quebecers continue to form a clear majority of the population, the growing number of immigrants, along with a greatly reduced birthrate, point to a shift that is forcing political parties -- separatist and federalist -- to rethink their political foundations.

"Immigrants who come from outside during their adult life choose Canada," said Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the University of Montreal. "They've immigrated to Canada, and those who choose sovereignty are a relatively limited number."

One such immigrant is Aymar Missakila. He came to Quebec from the Congo Republic in 1994, just as tensions were building in the period before a referendum on independence the next year.

Having come from a politically unstable country, Missakila said that at the time he did not understand why a province whose economy and social programs seemed strong would want to separate from the rest of Canada.

"I understand fighting for a bigger role for Quebec, but I don't believe sovereignty is the issue," said Missakila, 35, who works at a race-relations organization in Montreal.

"Many immigrants think a sovereign Quebec would not be good for the economy, the health care system and immigrant issues."

But economists say Quebec has little choice but to embrace the immigrants because of a plummeting native birthrate that would otherwise reduce economic growth. Even with a birthrate well below the rate of replacement, Quebec's population grew 4.3 percent from 2001 to 2006, to 7.5 million.

Some contend that replacing Boisclair will allow the Parti Quebecois to revive itself. But changing demographics and more accepting attitudes toward the rest of Canada suggest that the Parti Quebecois will have a difficult time swaying a majority of voters in favor of independence.

"We may be finding that the [Parti Quebecois] was the party of a generation," said Jocelyn Letourneau, a professor at Laval University in Quebec.

"Those who grew up in the 1960s," she said, "they had this project, independence, which they now have a hard time selling to the majority of Quebecers."