Quebec government suspends controversial immigration reforms
Premier says decision was made with agreement of province's immigration minister
The Quebec government is putting on hold its plan to restrict who is eligible for its Quebec Experience Program, which gives foreign students and temporary workers a fast track to permanent residency.
On Nov. 1, the province cut about 300 fields of study from the list of those eligible for the program, leaving thousands hoping to settle in Quebec without a clear path forward.
There was an immediate backlash. Students from around the world, some in tears, went to the National Assembly on Tuesday to implore the government to let them stay.
"You just cancel the contract without listening to people like us," said Jin Xing, a 36-year-old student from China studying commercial drafting in Quebec, in the hope of being able to settle in the province after she graduates.
"We're humans. We're abandoned. We're abandoned right now."
In the face of those emotional appeals, Premier François Legault agreed Wednesday to lift the restrictions for those already studying in the province.
But many said that didn't go far enough. The legislature's Official Opposition Liberals said the changes to the program — also known by its French-language initials, PEQ — were not well thought out, revealing the government to be ill-informed and disorganized.
Academic institutions were stung by the premier's suggestion that they were only upset about the immigration reforms because they stood to lose the higher tuition fees that most international students pay.
Then on Friday, a report by Radio-Canada revealed that many of the academic programs on the list, which the government said would continue to be eligible for the PEQ, are no longer in existence or are not even offered to international students, such as home economics and veterinary medicine.
Late on Friday, Radio-Canada learned from sources in the premier's office that the controversial reforms were being dropped, for the time being.
The sources said the decision was made with the agreement of Quebec Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, the architect of the changes to the PEQ. Up until now, Jolin-Barrette had refused to consider dropping the reforms.
In a Facebook post on Friday, Jolin-Barrette said the government will revise modifications to the PEQ alongside "relevant stakeholders."
Montreal's two French universities, the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) said on Twitter they welcomed the decision to suspend the PEQ restrictions, and applauded the government's desire to consult with the academic community.
Representatives from both universities said they would participate in the discussions.
Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, the president of Quebec's association of immigration lawyers, said he was surprised by how quickly the government switched gears.
"I want to thank the government for their capacity and humility to acknowledge they were not supported on this," Cliche-Rivard said. "I think it took courage to go back and to start over and reassess."
Consultations with all parties affected will be key for future immigration reforms, he said.
"The mistake was not to consult with different actors of every sector."
Quebec Liberal MNA Pierre Arcand said the lack of consultation is a pattern of the CAQ government.
"It shows lack of planning, and that the government … do not consult enough, don't do their homework and are always having to backtrack," Arcand said.
He said the immigration reforms made no sense in the first place, and that Legault should "seriously consider" taking the file away from Jolin-Barrette.
"I don't think [Jolin-Barrette] has the credibility to be able to manage it in the future," Arcand said, referring to the minister's fierce defence of the PEQ restrictions all week.
'Here to make our voice heard'
On Friday afternoon, about 150 foreign students staged another protest outside Jolin-Barrette's Montreal office.
"We are here to make our voice heard, [let] the minister of immigration know we feel cheated after the law changed so suddenly," said Guohuan Yu, a student from China studying to become an IT support specialist. His field of study was one of those originally left off the list.
The proposed reforms were in step with the Coalition Avenir Québec government's campaign commitment to decrease the number of immigrants Quebec accepts each year.
The target for the coming year is 43,000, up slightly from 2019, after the government cut immigration levels by 20 per cent right after it was elected in October 2018.
In 2018, there were 11,000 people admitted under the Quebec Experience Program.
Whereas foreign students in all fields of study were admissible to the PEQ in the past, the rules adopted Nov. 1 only included seven doctoral programs, 24 master's programs, 54 bachelor's programs and 59 college diploma programs.
Legault said earlier this week he wants to focus on professions linked to the pure sciences "because that's where the innovation is, that's where the future is, and I want Quebec to be ready for the future."
He also suggested universities and colleges are defending the old PEQ because they "would like to have more students, because they get more financing if they have more students — even if they are not answering our needs."
With reporting from Benjamin Shingler and Radio-Canada