Catherine Xhardez, a new professor in the Department of Political Science, is an expert on immigration policy and federalism who believes it is possible to “integrate in order to exist.”
Catherine Xhardez likes to shift perspective, question certainties and dispel prejudices, both her own and those of others.
Born in Belgium to a pharmacist mother and physiotherapist father, Xhardez might have seemed destined for a medical future. She did in fact go into medicine, but not for long.
“I didn’t like it,” she recalled. “My best grades were in philosophy and I set medicine aside. I wanted to get a handle on the world, to reflect, to acquire the analytic keys to understanding how power relationships operated in the organization of society.”
Xhardez decided to pursue those lines of inquiry and switch to political science. She earned a bachelor’s degree in poli sci and law from Université Saint-Louis—Bruxelles, a master’s degree in poli sci from the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po Paris) and a master’s degree in public law from Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).
“My research led me to question the effects of nationalism on immigration in federal states such as Belgium and Canada, where I see parallels between Flanders and Quebec,” she said.
‘Integrate in order to exist’
Xhardez then embarked on a joint Ph.D. in political science and social science at Université Saint-Louis—Bruxelles and Sciences Po Paris, during which she made research trips to Yale, McGill and Oxford universities.
Her thesis was about the relationship between sub-state nationalism and the integration of immigrants in Flanders and Quebec.
“I wanted to understand the evolution of discourses about immigration and the circulation of ideas and demands on the subject within the club of national minorities, the internal construction of attitudes towards immigrants and how to integrate them,” said Xhardez.
Once again, her findings challenged some preconceptions.
“It is generally thought that nationalisms don’t care for immigrants, but in my thesis I show that the opposite can be true under certain circumstances, that it is less of a conflict than people think and it is possible to integrate in order to exist,” she suggested. “Despite the differences between Flanders and Quebec, or Catalonia and Scotland, we can see lines of convergence in the evolution of ideas and discourses about immigration, particularly when it comes to defending and promoting language and culture, and the implications of those concerns for the types of immigrants people want to welcome and how they want to define themselves from within.”
Her main contribution to the literature on immigration policy has been demonstrating that there has been “a de-centering: integration is increasingly operating below the central state and sub-state entities have a number of powers and means at their disposal for integrating immigrants.”
This is also the thrust of her current projects: looking below the central state to examine how the components of a federation, such as Canada’s provinces, attract, select, integrate and retain immigrants.
Next stop: Montreal
Xhardez has been keenly interest in Quebec, and Montreal in particular, for years.
She clearly remembers her first “big” trip, which was to Quebec when she was barely 10. She returned to Montreal as an adult for an International Political Science Association conference in 2014 and to do research at McGill in 2016. In 2018, she moved to Montreal with her husband and 5-month-old daughter to do a post-doc at Concordia.
In 2020, she returned to Belgium as an FWO (Research Foundation – Flanders) post-doctoral fellow at the VUB’s Brussels School of Governance, but she and her family planned to eventually settle in Montreal.
Two years later, 2022 has turned out to be a watershed year for Xhardez. She’s back in Montreal as an assistant professor in UdeM’s Department of Political Science, where she is teaching two courses, one on immigration and multiculturalism and the other on methods for evaluating public policy.
“Montreal has a great community of researchers interested in issues of immigration and federalism,” she said. “Being here, I can wed concepts and theory with practice, understand the material better and teach it better.”
What does she have in store for her students?
“I want to get them to take a step back and see things from a different angle,” she responded. “I tell them that we are here to unlearn together, especially on immigration issues, where preconceived ideas abound. And their questions can make me question myself about some concepts.”