Quebec backtracks on changes to immigration program aimed at students

Quebec Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Simon Jolin Barrette, left, is congratulated by Quebec Premier Francois Legault after they voted a legislation on secularism, at the National Assembly in Quebec City, Sunday, June 16, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

QUEBEC  The Quebec government has backtracked on proposed changes to an immigration program aimed at fast-tracking residency for post-secondary students that would’ve seen many of the current participants sent home.

After teary pleas at the legislature from some of those people a day earlier and calls from opposition parties for the Legault government to revisit its decision, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette announced Wednesday he would allow students already enrolled in the program to complete it under the old rules.

Jolin-Barrette, who didn’t meet with the students, said their testimonials at a news conference inside the legislature led him to change his mind.

“I think I’m really sensitive to that because I heard them yesterday and this morning …. I made some changes about the reforms to answer their questions and their preoccupations,” Jolin-Barrette told reporters.

While those currently in the program will be spared, the new restrictive rules will go ahead as expected for future participants as the province attempts to address labour shortages by targeting specific fields where workers are needed.

The about-face comes a day after both Jolin-Barrette and Premier Francois Legault appeared inflexible.

Interim Liberal leader Pierre Arcand said his party tried on eight occasions to have Jolin-Barrette meet with the students.

“The minister hid. He did everything to avoid any type of meeting,” Arcand said. “I do not call this being sensitive.”

Legault said he was shaken by what he heard from the students. “I didn’t like my day,” Legault told reporters Wednesday morning. “When I spoke to my wife last night, she saw very well I had not liked my day. She understood it wasn’t my best day.”

Hundreds of foreign students admitted to the province under the Quebec experience program could have found themselves forced to leave after the province last week tightened the rules for the program.

In place since 2010, the popular program allows foreign students with a qualifying diploma or people with work experience in Quebec to receive an expedited selection certificate, fast-tracking residency and making it possible to stay in the province.

Whereas all programs were admissible in the past, the new rules would only include seven doctoral programs, 24 masters programs, 54 bachelors programs and 59 junior college diploma programs. The list of eligible programs and degrees will be reviewed yearly by the government according to the province’s needs.

“The reform is there because it is necessary to select immigrants based on Quebec’s labour market,” Jolin-Barrette said.

That means a student admitted to a bachelors’ program in demand could discover, two years later, without completing the program, that it’s no longer admissible.

“Indeed, it may be necessary to look at the date of entry so as not to penalize people,” Legault said, without explaining further.

In 2018, there were 11,000 people admitted under the program.