Why the Quebec government's immigration missteps go beyond François Legault's 'bad day'
Province forced to walk back restriction to popular immigration program
When Quebec Premier François Legault approached reporters Wednesday morning, it was clear things had changed.
A day earlier, he'd been confronted by bright, ambitious would-be immigrants who told deeply personal stories of what they'd given up to work or study in Quebec.
Their criticism and their tears had forced the Coalition Avenir Québec government to backtrack on the restrictions it tried to put on a popular immigration program for foreign students who completed post-secondary studies in Quebec and others in the province on temporary work permits.
It had been, Legault acknowledged, a "bad day."
When it comes to immigration, though, the CAQ's struggles to come up with a cohesive policy extend far beyond a single 24-hour period.
The CAQ, elected on a nationalist platform that emphasizes identity issues, has struggled to follow through on promises that often appear at odds with the realities of a province in the midst of a historic labour shortage.
And Legault himself has shown a limited grasp of how Quebec's immigration policy works.
During the 2018 election campaign, when the CAQ promised to cut immigration levels by 20 per cent to 40,000 annually, Legault misspoke when asked how long a permanent resident had to wait before applying for citizenship.
Legault answered "a few months" when it actually takes at least three years.
He erred again when he said Canada's test for new immigrants comes when they apply for permanent residency; in fact, they take it years later, prior to their oath of citizenship.
The mistakes could be forgiven, except immigration is central to the CAQ's platform, and since taking power, the government has made further missteps.
Aspiring immigrants in limbo — again
The CAQ's immigration plans hit a roadblock when the government tried last February to throw out a backlog of 18,000 applications from skilled workers as it sought to overhaul the system.
Legault's point man on the file, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, had ordered his ministry to immediately stop processing the applications even though his immigration reform bill hadn't yet passed.
The move drew protests from lawyers, immigration advocates, employers and unions. It thrust as many as 50,000 people, including the applicants' families, into a state of limbo as they waited for an alternative to be established.
A judge granted an injunction, saying Jolin-Barrette's order was illegal and Quebec had to continue working under the old rules until the law was passed.
Jolin-Barrette ultimately agreed to continue processing the applications, but critics said the whole affair signalled the CAQ's lack of understanding of the law — and a lack of consideration for thousands of aspiring newcomers.
Bringing back the values test
As it moves forward with its reforms, the CAQ has faced other challenges.
Starting next year, immigrants will have to prove they have learned "democratic values and Quebec values" in order to obtain a Quebec selection certificate — the first step toward permanent residency for immigrants wanting to live in the province.
The test, which only pertains to the economic class of immigrants, will consist of 20 questions, and applicants will be given three chances to pass.
Marjorie Villefranche, director of the Maison d'Haiti, a Montreal community centre serving the Haitian community, said the values test is nothing more than a political ploy.
"They're trading on the idea that we're going to clamp down on immigrants, that there are too many immigrants who don't know our values," she said.
Is the reversal enough?
A big part of the CAQ government's problem has been its attempt to keep its campaign promise to cut the number of immigrants when there is a limited pool to cut from.
Quebec only has control over the economic class of immigrants, which accounts for 60 per cent of all immigrants accepted to Quebec each year, said Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, president of the Quebec Immigration Lawyers Association.
The rest — refugees, and people accepted under the family reunification program — are overseen by the federal government.
"If they wanted to cut somewhere, they needed to cut economic," Cliche-Rivard said in an interview.
That meant substantially cutting back the fields of study eligible under the so-called Quebec experience program, which cuts the wait for a selection certificate from three years to 20 days for foreign students and those in the province for more than a year on temporary work permits.
The program, known by its French acronym, PEQ, has largely been viewed as a success by universities and business groups.
Legault, who has been riding a wave of popularity since taking office last year, appeared unusually contrite Wednesday after Jolin-Barrette announced students already in the province would be exempt from the cuts under a grandfather clause.
He said he was moved by the emotional testimony from hopeful immigrants the day before.
And he suggested Jolin-Barrette, one of his most trusted ministers, should have considered the impact on people rather than only trying to meet the demands of the labour force.
"I understand why Simon wanted to make the changes," he said, "but we also have to be [humane] with people who made decisions [based on] former programs."
Still, business groups and universities said it was not enough.
"For me, it's totally insufficient," said Guy Breton, the rector at Université de Montréal.
Pierre Arcand, interim leader for the Liberals, said the controversy damaged Quebec's reputation as a place that welcomes foreign students.
Last year, 45,000 international students enrolled in Quebec universities and other post-secondary institutions. Of those, 11,000 received an expedited selection certificate under the PEQ.
"We think that the government should revisit, again, the entire immigration reform that they have right now," Arcand said.
"If you are a qualified worker or a student, do you really want to come to Quebec?"
With files from Radio-Canada’s Romain Schué