Quebec premier says no to compromise on 18,000 immigration files

Quebec Premier François Legault speaks to journalists at the National Assembly Saturday, June 15, 2019. Yannick Gadbois/Global News

Quebec Premier François Legault said a compromise is not possible when it comes to treating the 18,000 immigration applications Bill 9 will cancel once the legislation is adopted.

READ MORE: ‘Tinder of immigration’: Quebec outlines plan for how to welcome newcomers

Members of the National Assembly were obligated to sit Saturday after the government invoked a closure motion in order to force the adoption of its immigration reform legislation, Bill 9.

Cancelling 18,000 immigration applications that were filed under an old immigration system has been a controversial issue. Opposition parties want to see the government bend and continue treating those files, which represent about 50,000 individuals, many of whom already live and work in Quebec, even after Bill 9 is adopted, which will likely happen late Saturday night at the end of the closure debate.

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“We know that it’s going to cost very much not to treat them, so why are we so stubborn? We’re talking about people, real people who have been asking to get their visa here,” said Parti Quebecois (PQ) MNA Méganne Perry-Mélançon.

READ MORE: Quebec immigration minister explains about-face on boosting immigration levels

The government attempted to cancel the files when it tabled the bill but was later forced to continue processing them under a court injunction. If Bill 9 is adopted as is, the government will reimburse the candidates the $1000 application fee and ask them to re-apply under a new system put in place by the previous Liberal government, called Arrima.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has referred to this new system as the “Tinder of immigration” because it matches potential immigrants with future employers based on job market needs instead of the old system, which was first come, first served. The government says this will better address Quebec’s labour shortage and ensure that immigrants are gainfully employed once they arrive in the province.

During Question Period, Jolin-Barrette said that 59 per cent of current Quebec immigrants are overqualified for the jobs they have.

He also said, “For those who have been here for less than five years, the unemployment rate is double what it is for Quebecers born here.”

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The CAQ government estimates that it would take a year and a half to process the 18,000 pending applications; meanwhile, it says 100,000 people have already applied through the Arrima program, but can’t be processed until the bill is adopted.

The Liberal Party has argued that the old applications can be processed at the same time as the those filed under the Arrima program. There is also another fast-track program for immigrants who already live in Quebec, called the Programme de l’expérience québécoise (PEQ), but few of the 18,000 applications have been transferred to that program.

“The fact of the matter is it’s not that easy and that’s why we said all along that it’s going to be a lot better, a lot faster to go through the 18,000 files in the previous system, even though they could change the criteria,” said Liberal MNA Dominique Anglade.

However, Premier Legault said the Liberals are mistaken about this.

“Dominique Anglade, she knows very well that we cannot change the criteria. We would be sued and we would lose,” Legault said.

READ MORE: Liberals, CAQ in stalemate over debate on immigration reform

“We either have to keep the old criteria we had and that’s not answering the needs of our companies. Or, we change the criteria, like we proposed in the Bill,” he explained.

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Accused of lacking compassion

During Question Period Saturday morning, opposition parties accused the CAQ government of lacking compassion.

Liberal interim leader, Pierre Arcand said: “Businesses never said that the 18,000 files should not be processed. What counts more, Premier, labour needs or pride from wanting to maintain a position that doesn’t make any sense?”

Quebec Solidaire MNA, Andrés Fontecilla pleaded that the minister close the debate with a “demonstration of humanity.”

“We have spent an enormous amount of time in parliamentary committee trying to improve these bills. I will attempt one last time to repair an injustice. Can he (Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette) pose an ultimate gesture of compassion? Can he at least process the files of those who already live in Quebec, who work and who contribute to Quebec society?

Jolin-Barrette, who is also the government house leader, interpreted the MNA’s question as justifying his decision to invoke closure.

In response, he said, “We just heard an admission, Mr. Speaker, from the MNA of Laurier-Dorion relating to the fact that he ‘spent an enormous amount of time in parliamentary committee.'”

Instead of answering the question, Jolin-Barrette added, “I am happy that finally, someone from the opposition parties recognizes that we ‘spent an enormous amount of time in parliamentary committee.'”

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Quebec Solidaire co-spokesperson, Manon Massé, who has made emotional appeals in the National Assembly before, tried again to elicit “compassion” from the premier.

“In all these debates about the immigration bill, we’ve talked a lot about files, programs, procedures and statistics…We have completely forgotten what’s hidden behind all that: real people,” she said.

“These aren’t just files that will be destroyed…these are human lives that will be turned upside down,” she said, adding, “Immigration isn’t just an economic resource.”

The premier replied that while there are “real people” behind the 18,000 files, there are also “real people” behind the files in the Arrima program as well.

READ MORE: CAQ and Liberals battle over public hearings on Quebec immigration

“What we want is for people who come to Quebec to find a job at the height of their qualifications,” Legault said.

When Massé faulted him for again only speaking about immigration in terms of employment, the premier replied, “When a person arrives in Quebec, for me, there are three things that are important: learning French, respecting Quebec values and having a job. This is how we integrate people. This is how we’re going to process the 100,000 files in Arrima. And Mr. President, I don’t think we have lessons to learn from the leader of the second opposition.”

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Rowdy question period

The speaker of the National Assembly François Paradis was forced to raise his voice towards the end of Saturday’s Question Period and demand that MNAs calm down and keep decorum.

When the politicians continued to talk over him, Paradis ironized: “Am I the only person who hears that disruptive noise? I ask you to remain calm and attentive to the questions and the answers. Please, settle down!”

When there was still more noise after shouting, Paradis stopped again with the comment, “No, but seriously.”

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