Montreal

CAQ government's third attempt at reforming immigration program faces fresh round of criticism

After two failed attempts that forced it to backtrack, the CAQ government has once again announced changes to the popular Quebec Experience Program. And once again, no one seems pleased.

'I think the best we could say is it's less bad than the previous version,' says immigration lawyer

The Quebec Experience Program 'was working so well. So they are facing a non-problem,' said Thibault Camara, of the group Quebec is Us Too. He says weekly protests against proposed reforms to the program will continue. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Immigration Minister Nadine Girault has announced reforms to the Quebec Experience Program, which gives foreign students and temporary workers a fast track to permanent residency in Canada.

The Coalition Avenir Québec abandoned two previous attempts at reform under the previous immigration minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, after they were widely criticized for being unfair to would-be immigrants and unresponsive to the needs of Quebec employers.

Once again, the reforms are being slammed.

"I think the best we can say is it's less bad than the previous version," said Derek Chalk, a member of the Quebec Immigration Lawyers Association.

"The government has not listened to us, has not listened to any stakeholders who expressed concern about the reform," said Thibault Camara, who speaks for the group Quebec Is Us Too.

Student groups said in a statement that Girault's reforms represented "false progress," while the Quebec federation of school service centres, an umbrella group for the centres that have replaced school boards, called the reforms "insufficient."

Quebec's new immigration minister, Nadine Girault, announced reforms to the Quebec Experience Program Thursday — the third attempt to change the program since last fall. (CBC News)

Lives up-ended

The Quebec Experience Program was started under the previous Liberal government, and it was popular with both would-be immigrants and Quebec businesses.

It gave thousands of foreign students who graduated from post-secondary schools in the province, as well as people working in the province for more than a year on temporary permits, a short cut on the path to Canadian citizenship.

Last fall, in the CAQ government's first attempt at reforming the program, Jolin-Barrette tried to cut the number of programs whose graduates qualified for the program as part of a broader attempt to roll back the number of immigrants. 

The changes were to take effect immediately, meaning thousands of students who had upended their lives to study in Quebec with the hope that they'd eventually be able to settle here were left in the lurch.

After a public outcry, Jolin-Barrette backtracked, and Premier François Legault admitted the government had made a mistake.

Jolin-Barrette introduced a second package of reforms in the spring, which were once again roundly criticized.

Girault became the minister last month after a cabinet shuffle, and presented a third attempt.

Broken promise

After the first failed reform attempt last fall, Legault promised he would add a grandfather clause that would ensure students who applied under the old rules wouldn't be affected by changes to the program.

Critics said Thursday's announcement effectively breaks that promise.

Instead of a grandfather clause, Girault announced what she called a "transition measure" that would ensure students who graduate before the end of 2020 would still be subject to the old rules.

Immigration lawyer David Chalk said the CAQ government broke its promise to include a grandfather clause for those already working or studying in Quebec who had hoped to qualify for the program. (David Chalk and Associates)

"The promise was that anyone who was studying in Quebec last November would be grandfathered, and in the end, it's only going to be those who will be finishing their studies by the end of this year," Chalk said.

He said thousands of students will once again be left behind. That was echoed by post-secondary student federations.

"These people will see their life plans considerably affected by this half-measure," said the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, the Union étudiante du Québec, and Force Jeunesse, in a joint statement.

Stringent work-experience requirements

The other concession announced by Girault deals with the amount of work experience required to qualify for the program.

When the program first started, foreign students who had graduated from Quebec schools didn't need any work experience to qualify, and temporary foreign workers required one year.

Jolin-Barrette's second attempt at reform announced in late May added a requirement for students to have between one and two years of work experience, depending on their degree, and it upped the work-experience requirement to three years for temporary foreign workers.

Girault's announcement Thursday included a compromise, with a maximum of 18 months' work experience required for students, and a decrease from three years to two for temporary workers.

In addition, Girault's reform allow for time spent doing internships while studying to count toward work experience.

The student groups called this a "weak compromise," saying work experience shouldn't be required at all for international students in order to qualify for the program.

Chalk said no other province requires two years' work experience for temporary foreign workers to qualify for a fast track to permanent residency.

"We are no longer a competitive province in this country in terms of attracting new immigrants," Chalk said.

Business groups say more change needed

Business groups echoed those concerns,  praising some of Girault's compromises but also saying more needs to be done.

The Quebec chapter of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the reforms shut out many unskilled workers, which the province needs.

"When we talk about a labour shortage in Quebec, we are mainly talking about vacant positions that require little or no education," said the CFIB's Quebec vice-president, François Vincent, in a statement.

Both the Quebec Federation of Chambers of Commerce and the Conseil du Patronat, Quebec's largest employers' group, welcomed the changes but said they don't fully address the provincial labour shortage, and they pressed for further tweaks.

Premier François Legault and former immigration minister Simon Jolin-Barrette were forced to backtrack on two previous attempts at reform. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Protests will continue

Camara, with Quebec Is Us Too, wondered why the CAQ government ever decided to tinker with the program in the first place.

"The Quebec Experience Program was not problematic. It was working so well. So they are facing a non-problem," Camara said.

Camara, whose group has been holding weekly protests since Jolin-Barrette announced the last package of reforms in the spring, said the group would be demonstrating again this weekend.

 "If we don't welcome immigrants properly, we won't have any. And we need immigrants to develop our society, and to create the society that we dream about," he said.

Girault insisted Thursday's reform package was the "final version," and no more changes will be made.

About the Author

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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