The area around Montreal’s rue Jean-Talon, long known as Little Italy, has recently been renamed “Little Maghreb” by local traders. Montreal, a city of 2 million people, is divided between French speakers in the east and north and English speakers in the southeast, but it is also an ethnic patchwork. Little Maghreb is home to many of Quebec’s North African population, especially Algerians. Many sections of rue Jean-Talon, on the edge of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, a middle-class area favored by French immigrants, show signs of these arrivals, who started to come in the early 1980s. One Canadian in five was born abroad (200,000 in North Africa); 80 percent of them live in Quebec, 70 percent in Montreal itself.
Butcher shops here are halal, travel agents offer cheap flights to North Africa, and bakeries sell cakes and kitchen utensils from back home. A few shops indicate a South American presence. When there are celebrations of a North African soccer win, the police gently divert the traffic to limit congestion. Many cafés share their names with those of Algiers, Tunis, and Casablanca. In the 5th July Café (named after the date of Algeria’s independence in 1962), I met several recent arrivals. Mounir D., 35, from Oran in Algeria, is a maintenance man in a department store and received his immigration visa in 2015. He told me that his new life has given him autonomy and freedom: “I’m good here. I won’t deny there are problems—but, brother, I have my wife and my children, we have a home and a car, and in five years at most we’ll be Canadian citizens. You shouldn’t take too much notice of the people who complain. Here, we have peace.”
Many of his friends strongly disagree; they say their reality is very different. They don’t hide their disappointment or anger with Quebec’s authorities, which haven’t done all they could to help them integrate. Hassan M., a Tunisian architect who says he “works in construction,” is bitter: “We’re not refugees asking for charity. We’re here as a result of a selective immigration policy, because Canada and Quebec invited us and chose us. But when we get here, unemployment is guaranteed. No way is this El Dorado.”
To tackle a declining birth rate and avoid Quebec’s share of the population dwindling relative to Canada’s English-speaking majority, the province passed legislation allowing it to select “foreign nationals capable of participating fully, in French, in Quebec society.” North and West Africa and Haiti are a pool of French-speaking potential immigrants widely considered vital to Quebec’s development.
Hassan and his friends emphasize that unemployment is particularly high among those of North African origin: It’s between 20 and 30 percent, three to four times higher than the Quebec average, which was 6.2 percent in January 2017. But these figures fail to capture the strong sense of demotion that many working migrants feel. A much-quoted anecdote says that if you have a medical emergency in Montreal, your best bet is to call a taxi rather than depend on the oversubscribed health service: Your driver is likely to be a doctor from North or sub-Saharan Africa, unable to practice because his qualifications are unrecognized.