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How African Immigrants Have Revived a Remote Corner of Quebec

WorldAfricaHow African Immigrants Have Revived a Remote Corner of Quebec

Not long ago, the handful of African immigrants in Rouyn-Noranda, a remote city in northern Quebec, all knew one another.

There was the Nigerian woman long married to a Québécois man. The odd researchers from Cameroon or the Ivory Coast. And, of course, the doyen, a Congolese chemist who first made a name for himself driving a Zamboni at hockey games.

Today, newcomers from Africa are everywhere — in the streets, supermarkets, factories, hotels, even at the church-basement boxing club.

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

“Since last year, it’s like the gate of hell or the gate of heaven, something opened, and everybody just kept trooping in — I’ve never seen so many Africans in my life,” Folake Lawanson Savard, 51, the Nigerian whose husband is Québécois, said to loud laughter in the store.

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

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

The increase has created African communities in the unlikeliest places in the French-speaking province of Quebec. Some are working in logging in boreal forests. Others, after becoming permanent residents or citizens, are government workers in Indigenous towns accessible only by boat or small propeller planes.

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

Driven by a graying population and declining birthrates, the labor shortage has drawn many from Francophone Africa to Quebec, including to Rouyn-Noranda, a mining city of 42,000 people about 90 minutes 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 the past two years alone to 2.7 million, out of Canada’s total population of 41 million.

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

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

Rouyn-Noranda’s once tiny African population was made up of individuals who were hired for technical positions in the mining industry or as researchers at the local university.

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

The shift occurred partly because of the city government’s decision in 2021 to increase efforts to help local companies recruit foreign workers, said Mariève Migneault, the director of the Local Development Center, the city’s economic development arm.

“Our companies were suffering from such a shortage of workers that it was slowing down Rouyn-Noranda’s economic development,” Ms. Migneault said.

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

Immigrants, most from Colombia, are soon expected to make up about 10 percent of the company’s 200-person work force, Ms. Gabrysz said, adding that they allowed the company to operate without constantly worrying about staff shortages.

“It’s changed my life,” Ms. 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. About 4,000 to 4,500 temporary foreign workers are now in the Rouyn-Noranda region, following a sharp increase since 2021, according to the Local Development Center.

When Aimé Pingi arrived in the region from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2008, Africans were so few that they all were able to know one another.

“If you spotted one, you would exchange phone numbers right away and then call each other to meet up for coffee,” Mr. Pingi said. “It was like a family back then.”

With a background in chemistry, Mr. Pingi came to work at a mining company. But he also took on odd jobs, including operating a Zamboni at hockey games in a town north of Rouyn-Noranda, which drew 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.”

Mr. Pingi eventually married a local woman and even ran — unsuccessfully — for local office.

Today, temporary workers from Africa often arrive as part of a “family project,” said Mohamed Méité, a La Mosaïque member from the Ivory Coast, who is getting 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 allow, they can apply for permanent residency at the end of the contracts and sponsor their families to join them in Canada.

Because many temporary workers are initially tied to a single employer, they can sometimes endure abuses, including unwarranted firings and low wages, said Mr. Brin of La Mosaïque.

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

A Cameroonian, Metangmo Nji, 40, left her husband and children in 2022 to work as a cook at a fast-food chain in Rouyn-Noranda. Though her employer treated her and four other Cameroonian kitchen workers well, even providing lodging, Ms. Nji said being by herself led to “serious depression.”

“Leaving my family and kids behind, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever passed through,” she said.

Temporary workers, she said, have to be “psychologically strong” to cope with loneliness while looking forward to when they can gain residency and invite their families.

Still, things had gotten better, Ms. Nji said. With Rouyn-Noranda’s African population rising rapidly, an association for Cameroonians now had 52 members, up from 10 last year, she said. They meet once a month over Cameroonian dishes, like fufu with ndolé, a spinach stew.

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

Poutine — the caloric combination of French fries layered with cheese curds and gravy — has become Quebec’s signature dish worldwide.

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 grew up wolfing down poutine at Chez Morasse, cementing its place in the city’s history and culture.

When Mr. Morasse decided to retire in 2022, he considered several purchase offers. Setting aside offers from Québécois in favor of the couple from West Africa, Mr. Morasse said that Mr. Sodji had worked for him as a deliveryman and had the “soul of an entrepreneur.”

As a lifelong resident, Mr. Morasse said he also witnessed how African newcomers had revived his city.

“Because of the labor shortages, our supermarkets were almost closed on weekends, and our restaurants were closed two, three days a week, and in the evenings,” he said. “Now they’re open and it’s all African workers.”

Chez Morasse’s staff includes six cooks recently arrived from Benin and Togo.

To the surprise of Mr. Sodji and Ms. Senou, their purchase of Chez Morasse drew 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 storied poutinerie,” and the newspaper Le Devoir simply said that “the best poutine in the world is now béninois.”

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

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