Montreal

After botched reforms, Quebec's immigration minister faces questions from business community

Meeting with business leaders in Montreal Friday, Simon Jolin-Barrette tried to assuage their concerns about his plans to reform the immigration system.

'We remain steadfast that we need more immigrants,' says head of Montreal's Chamber of Commerce

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette admitted to business leaders in Montreal Friday that he erred earlier this month with his now-abandoned immigration reform, but committing to moving forward with changes soon. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

After his most difficult period as Quebec's immigration minister, in which he was forced to backtrack on reforms that put the future of thousands of foreign students in doubt, Simon Jolin-Barrette took the stage before Montreal business leaders with a conciliatory message.

He said the province's immigration system is improving, the cuts to annual immigration levels are only temporary, and he is prepared to listen.

"You all have needs in your businesses," Jolin-Barrette told the crowd Friday as they polished off lunch at the Palais des Congrès, adding it "would be a pleasure to meet with you in the coming weeks."

Jolin-Barrette's appearance comes after he was forced to roll back new restrictions to the popular Quebec Experience Program (PEQ), which provided international students studying here and temporary workers with a fast track to permanent residency.

The PEQ was initially available to any foreign student who earned a degree in the province, as well as to workers on temporary permits who have been here for more than a year.

The CAQ tightened the requirements Nov. 1, drastically cutting the programs and specialties whose graduates would qualify.

The changes were undone a week later, following widespread criticism from many fronts and emotional testimony from the students affected.

Pro-immigration protesters demonstrated outside Montreal's Palais des congrès Friday while Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette gave a luncheon speech to business leaders inside. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

In his speech Friday, Jolin-Barrette joked that at least now everyone in Quebec understands how the PEQ works.

While acknowledging he had erred, Jolin-Barrette said he is committed to moving forward with changes to the immigration system.

The status quo, he said, is not an option.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Jolin-Barrette said he would hold consultations in the coming weeks with representatives from the business and education sectors.

"After that, I will propose a reform with some modifications," he said.

More immigrants needed, Chamber says

Michel Leblanc, the president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, which hosted the event, had a chance to press Jolin-Barrette on his plans in a candid question-and-answer segment.

He said plainly, at one point, that suspending the PEQ reforms was "the right decision."

Afterward, Leblanc said there is unanimity among members that we need "a higher number of immigrants" in the face of a strong economy and a dwindling labour market.

Quebec City and other regions are suffering from an acute labour shortage, but Leblanc says the job market is tight in Montreal, as well, and the city doesn't want to lose immigrants to the regions.

"We remain steadfast that we need more immigrants, and we need to make sure we integrate them well," he said.

"My belief is that the minister is going to hear that from everywhere — from businesses in Montreal, in the regions, wherever he goes."

Asked whether he had lost confidence in the minister, Leblanc didn't answer directly, saying what is important is that Jolin-Barrette has promised to consult on future changes.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

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