After outcry, Quebec backtracks on restrictions to student immigration program

Bowing to public pressure, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette now says he will allow students who are already in the Quebec experience program to continue their studies.

Students already studying under the PEQ will be allowed to complete it, immigration minister says

On Tuesday, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette was adamant he would not tweak changes to the Quebec experience program (PEQ). The next day, he announced a grandfather clause would be put in place. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Bowing to public pressure, the Quebec government announced Wednesday it will allow students already in the province under a popular immigration program to finish it.

But critics say there are still significant problems with the changes the CAQ government is making to the Quebec experience program (PEQ).

Created in 2010, the program gave foreign students studying in the province, as well as people working in the province for more than a year on temporary permits, a fast-track toward permanent residency.

Accepted applicants received a Quebec selection certificate, the first step toward becoming a permanent resident in the province, in 20 business days. That process normally takes two to three years.

Last year, 10,711 people were accepted into the program, and 5,146 of them were post-secondary graduates. But the CAQ suspended the program earlier this year, saying it was a victim of its own success.

On Nov. 1, the province cut about 300 fields of study from the list of ones eligible for the program, leaving thousands hoping to settle in Quebec without a clear path forward.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette now says students already under the program will be able to complete their studies under the old rules.

Jolin-Barrette said he was moved by the testimonials he heard from people affected by the change. 

Students from around the world, some of them in tears, went to the National Assembly on Tuesday to implore the government to let them stay.

"I heard them yesterday. And today, this morning, at 8:15, I announced to you that I heard them, and I made some changes about the reforms to answer their questions and their preoccupations. So I think I'm quite sensitive to them," he told reporters in Quebec City.

Students and opposition politicians held a news conference Tuesday over the restrictions to the Quebec experience program. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

Legault struggles to strike a balance

Criticism had been mounting over the decision to tighten the program's rules. Earlier this week, Premier François Legault said he was open to tweaking the changes after a prominent researcher in artificial intelligence, Yoshua Bengio, said it would hurt the sector.

But just Tuesday, Jolin-Barrette was adamant he would not budge.

In an address to reporters after Jolin-Barrette's announcement, Legault said they came to the decision, which was about striking a balance, together.

"I understand why Simon wanted to make the changes … but we also have to be [humane] with people who made decisions [based on] former programs."

He said he didn't realize the program was being marketed as guaranteed citizenship to the students who applied.

Under the CAQ's changes to the PEQ, the eligible fields of study admissible will be reviewed every year — meaning a student who arrives in the province next year could find the program dropped from the list before they finish.

Legault opened the door to ensuring those students aren't penalized, either.

Premier François Legault said he didn't fully grasp the impact changes to the PEQ would have on the applicants. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

He said it is his "obsession" to create wealth so Quebec becomes as rich as Ontario and the rest of Canada, and "in order to do so, we have to be careful about the choices we make with new immigrants."

He expressed a desire 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."

Interim Liberal leader Pierre Arcand said the government's reversal was simply an attempt to save face.

"This shows, as we have said numerous times, that the government is disorganized, that the reforms … aren't well-thought out."

Monsef Derraji, Liberal immigration critic, told Quebec AM the new rules will have a negative impact on the province's universities and CEGEPs, and wondered aloud how the government could make the changes without any consultation.

Problems for business owners

Marie-Ève Medza is president and co-owner a company that runs three high-end hair salons in Montreal. She has six employees from France who will now be able to stay thanks to the grandfather clause.

But she said the changes to the program will still affect her business. She likes to hire candidates from France because she says they are skilled and well-trained, but hairdressing is one of the professions that were slashed from the PEQ list.

Marie-Ève Medza said it appears the government doesn't understand the reality of being a business owner, and the struggle to retain employees. (Submitted by Marie-Ève Medza)

"I'm going have really a lot of problems to hire good candidates. Beauty schools in Quebec are closing because there's not a lot of students, so it's hard for us to hire people from here."

She said she doesn't think the government understands the reality of business owners.

"For some people, our industry is not important. But for business owners, for me and my three partners, it's everything that we have. It's our lives."

A victory, but more work to do

Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, president of the Quebec Immigration Lawyers Association, said the fact the government backtracked is a "tremendous victory."

But he cautioned that only addresses the immediate impact of the changes, and other aspects of the reform now need to be addressed.

"All the deans of every university, every political opposition party — I've not seen anyone complimenting the reform or the direct application of the reform in any media," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

With reporting by Cathy Senay and Steve Rukavina


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