April 13, 2024

How African immigrants revived a remote corner of Quebec

Not long ago, all the few African immigrants in Rouyn-Noranda, a remote town in northern Quebec, knew each other.

There was the Nigerian woman who had been married for a long time to a Quebecois man. The strange researchers from Cameroon or Ivory Coast. And, of course, the dean, a Congolese chemist who made a name for himself driving a Zamboni to hockey games.

Today, newcomers from Africa are everywhere – on the streets, in supermarkets, in factories, in hotels and even in boxing clubs in church basements.

A couple from Benin has taken over Chez Morasse, a city institution that introduced a favorite fatty dish, poutine, to this region. And women from various corners of West and Central Africa chatted at the city’s new African grocery store, Épicerie Interculturelle.

“Since last year, it’s been like the door to hell or the door to heaven, something opened and everyone kept coming in – I’ve never seen so many Africans in my life,” said Folake Lawanson Savard, 51, the Nigerian whose husband He’s from Quebec, he said amidst laughter in the store.

Rouyn-Noranda’s transformation followed a wave of immigrants Canada has allowed in as temporary workers in recent years to address widespread labor shortages. Many were eventually able to transform their temporary status into permanent residency, the final step before citizenship.

The influx of immigrants has also raised concerns, contributing to the country’s housing crisis and straining public services in some areas, prompting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to announce plans to control their numbers.

The increase created African communities in the most unlikely places in the French-speaking province of Quebec. Some are working in logging in boreal forests. Others, after becoming permanent residents or citizens, are civil servants in indigenous towns accessible only by boat or small propeller planes.

Although African immigrants have long lived in the province’s large cities, newcomers are a recent phenomenon in rural areas.

Driven by an aging population and declining birth rates, labor shortages have drawn many people from French-speaking Africa to Quebec, including Rouyn-Noranda, a mining town of 42,000 people about 90 minutes away. north of Montreal – by plane.

Across Canada, the number of temporary residents, a category that includes foreign workers but also foreign students and asylum seekers, has soared in recent years. It has doubled in just the last two years, to 2.7 million, in Canada’s total population of 41 million.

Canada’s immigration policy has traditionally focused on attracting highly skilled and skilled immigrants.

But many temporary foreign workers are now being hired by companies for lower-skilled jobs in the manufacturing and service industries, fueling debates over whether they will contribute as much to Canada’s economy as former immigrants did.

The once small African population of Rouyn-Noranda was made up of individuals hired for technical positions in the mining industry or as researchers at the local university.

“We had teachers and engineers,” said Valentin Brin, director of La Mosaïque, a private organization that helps new immigrants. “And then there was a change.”

The change came in part due to the city government’s decision in 2021 to increase efforts to help local businesses recruit foreign workers, said Mariève Migneault, director of the Center for Local Development, the city’s economic development arm.

“Our companies were suffering from such a shortage of workers that this was delaying the economic development of Rouyn-Noranda,” said Migneault.

For G5, a family-owned company that owns and operates hotels and restaurants in the city, the number of local workers has been declining for years, said Tatiana Gabrysz, who oversees the company’s two hotels. Young people were more attracted to well-paid mining jobs.

Immigrants, mostly from Colombia, are expected to soon make up about 10% of the company’s 200-person workforce, Gabrysz said, adding that they have allowed the company to operate without constantly worrying about staff shortages.

“It changed my life,” Gabrysz said.

Precise numbers are difficult to find, but Africans are believed to make up the largest group of temporary foreign workers in the city. Around 4,000 to 4,500 temporary foreign workers are now in the Rouyn-Noranda region, after a sharp increase since 2021, according to the Center for Local Development.

When Aimé Pingi arrived in the region from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, Africans were so few that everyone knew each other.

“If you found one, you would immediately exchange phone numbers and then call each other for coffee,” Pingi said. “It was like a family back then.”

With a degree in chemistry, Pingi came to work in a mining company. But he also did odd jobs, including operating a Zamboni at hockey games in a town north of Rouyn-Noranda, which attracted a lot of attention and helped him meet people.

“People were curious, in a positive way,” he said. “They wanted to know what I was doing here, what brought me here.”

Pingi ended up marrying a local woman and even ran – unsuccessfully – for local public office.

Today, temporary workers from Africa often arrive as part of a “family project,” said Mohamed Méité, a member of La Mosaïque from Côte d’Ivoire, who is obtaining a doctorate in mining engineering in Rouyn-Noranda.

Supported by their extended families, they typically come to Quebec on two-year contracts with a single employer. If their visas permit, they will be able to apply for permanent residency at the end of their contracts and sponsor their families to join them in Canada.

Since many temporary workers are initially tied to a single employer, they can sometimes suffer abuse, including unjustified dismissals and low pay, said La Mosaïque’s Brin.

Even if working conditions are good, isolation in remote locations in Quebec and separation from their families takes a big toll, some African immigrants said.

Cameroonian, Metangmo Nji, 40, left her husband and children in 2022 to work as a cook at a fast-food chain in Rouyn-Noranda. Although her employer treated her and four other Cameroonian kitchen workers well, even providing accommodation, Ms Nji said being alone caused “severe depression”.

“Leaving my family and children behind is the hardest thing I have ever been through,” she said.

Temporary workers, she said, have to be “psychologically strong” to deal with loneliness and, at the same time, look forward to the time when they can obtain residency and invite their families.

Still, things got better, Nji said. With Rouyn-Noranda’s African population increasing rapidly, an association for Cameroonians now had 52 members, up from 10 last year, she said. They meet once a month to enjoy Cameroonian dishes such as fufu con ndolé, a spinach stew.

The growing presence of the African community was perhaps felt most prominently when the city’s most famous poutine restaurant, Chez Morasse, passed into the hands of Carlos Sodji and Sylviane Senou, a young couple from Benin, two years ago.

Poutine – the high-calorie combination of French fries layered with cheese curds and gravy – has become Quebec’s signature dish around the world.

But it was introduced to the Rouyn-Noranda region in the 1970s, after the Morasse family discovered it in another part of Quebec, said Christian Morasse, the restaurant’s former owner. Generations have grown up devouring poutine at Chez Morasse, cementing its place in the city’s history and culture.

When Morasse decided to retire in 2022, he considered several purchase offers. Leaving aside offers from Quebecers in favor of the West African couple, Morasse said Sodji worked for him as a delivery man and had the “soul of a businessman.”

As a longtime resident, Mr. Morasse said he also witnessed how African newcomers revitalized his city.

“Due to the labor shortage, our supermarkets were almost closed on weekends and our restaurants were closed two, three days a week and at night,” he said. “Now they are open and they are all African workers.”

The team at Chez Morasse includes six cooks recently arrived from Benin and Togo.

To Sodji and Senou’s surprise, the purchase of Chez Morasse attracted intense media attention. “A new era begins at Chez Morasse,” said Radio-Canada, the public broadcaster. The Globe and Mail described how “immigrants from Benin saved a Quebec town’s famous poutinerie,” and the newspaper Le Devoir simply said that “the best poutine in the world is now Beninois.”

“We did not expect such a reaction,” Senou said. “But we really didn’t have time to enjoy it or even think about it. We were very busy working.

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