The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government is facing mounting pressure to drop all reforms to a popular immigration program aimed at fast-tracking residency for international students and foreign workers.
The changes announced last week affect the Quebec Experience Program, also known as PEQ.
Prior to the reforms, all degrees were eligible. Under the new regulations, however, the list was curtailed to seven doctorate programs, 24 masters, 65 bachelors and 59 collegiate diplomas.
As for temporary foreign workers, the new regulations stipulate they must hold a job appearing on a special list of “in-demand” jobs when they apply for permanent selection.
That list, however, is subject to change.
After public outcry on Tuesday, the government softened its stance on Wednesday to include a grandfather clause, guaranteeing people already in the program would not lose their eligibility even if they don’t meet the new selection criteria.
However, both Premier François Legault and Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette maintained the reforms are necessary to meet the specific needs of Quebec’s labour market.
“It’s really a good reform,” Jolin-Barrette said on Wednesday.
“There are needs on the Quebec market, and we have to fulfill that need. Immigration can be one of the solutions.”
National Assembly passes motion against reforms
In an embarrassing turn of events, the CAQ lost a vote in the National Assembly Wednesday afternoon on a motion to abolish the controversial reforms.
The motion was presented by Liberal MNA Monsef Derraji and received majority support from the opposition parties.
Only three of 75 CAQ ministers were present at the time. The CAQ would have needed five MNAs present to have the vote postponed until Thursday, something Deputy Whip Sylvain Levesque said he was ignorant of.
“I’m not proud of my mistake,” he said. “But I think I have grown because of this experience.”
While the motion is non-binding, opposition parties agree the government’s credibility is on the line and it has a moral obligation to respect the decision.
“If they ignore it, everyone will realize that the government is a government that doesn’t respect the authority and the voice of the National Assembly,” said Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
Interim Liberal Leader Pierre Arcand said it showed the government is “totally disorganized and doesn’t know where’s it’s going,” while Parti Québécois Leader Pascal Bérubé said it showed divisions within the CAQ.
“I think there are a lot of members of the parliament, especially CAQ members, who were not really comfy with how the government runs this issue.”
As Nadeau-Dubois sees it, the immigration minister now has two choices: “humility or humiliation.”
“If he backtracks now, everyone in Quebec will applaud him,” said Nadeau-Dubois. “If he continues forward it will just be more painful the day he comes to his senses and goes back on his decision.”
Opposition isn’t limited to the National Assembly.
On Wednesday, business leaders wrote an open letter against the reforms and on Thursday, students protested outside the legislature.
Ines Rebei, a Tunisian immigrant and one of the demonstrators said the whole affair has her rethinking her future.
“I don’t think I’m going to stay here in Quebec and I think that what happened is just making me want to go even more,” she said.
Legault stands firm
As for the government, it says it will not budge.
Speaking to reporters Thursday morning, Legault said he didn’t feel bound by the Liberal motion and has no intention of abiding by it.
He argued the reforms should have been put in place years ago.
“Right now, we have half the immigrants who are not having a job in line with their skills,” he said. “It’s too bad, I don’t like to see that.”
He said the changes will help guide the choices of international students and foreign workers, while aligning with the needs of Quebec’s labour market.
Legault said it’s what Quebecers need and people support the reforms.
“If you look on my Facebook for example, I would say that 90 per cent of the people agree with what we are doing,” he said.
The premier also downplayed concerns expressed by universities and business associations.
“Of course, the universities and CEGEPS, 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,” Legault said.
As for chambers of commerce, the premier said they wanted more immigrants in order to drive down salaries.
“It think we have to be careful,” he said. “For the good of Quebecers, it’s important we change our criteria.”