MONTREAL — Demonstrators denounced proposed changes to a Quebec immigration program that fast-tracks foreign students and workers, describing the reforms during several protests Saturday as a dehumanizing vision of immigration policy.
The changes to the Quebec experience program are expected to come into effect soon and demonstrators holding signs that read "A promise is a promise" and "Quebec is us too" called on the province's new Immigration Minister Nadine Girault to act.
The experience program permits foreign students and workers already established in the province to quickly obtain a Quebec selection certificate to gain permanent residency.
A new version of the program was introduced in May, following an ill-fated attempt to reform it last November that forced the provincial government to backtrack and apologize.
The new rules require international students to acquire two years of full-time work experience, in addition to obtaining their diploma. For foreign workers, this requirement is increased from one to three years and less skilled workers don't qualify.
That was heartbreaking for news for Carla Trigoso, a McGill University sociology student from Peru whose family went into debt to pay the $80,000 needed to complete her bachelor's degree.
After four years of living in Quebec and her degree no longer enough, Trigoso now fears that her chances of finding work in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic will be slim, not to mention that many jobs require permanent residence.
"We're not just file numbers and permits," she said, calling on Girault to show compassion.
Quebec Liberal Kathleen Weil believes the program she presented as immigration minister under a previous Liberal government, was "the envy of many jurisdictions."
"We had created this rapid immigration route because we wanted to retain these talents," she said, alongside several Liberal colleagues. "We are competing with the world to attract them."
Weil said she's torn up inside about changes being made.
"It is not a reform, reform is a progressive concept," Weil said. "We are regressing with this reform, we are not looking at human beings with all their potential."
Quebec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois described the changes as a "solution to a problem that does not exist" and simply a way for the Legault government to fulfil its electoral promise to reduce immigration.
"It is the program that makes it easier to successfully integrate, in particular because it allows people who are already in Quebec to stay there," Nadeau-Dubois said. "But from the moment the CAQ begins to obsess over this number, they are forced to close as many doors as possible."
Quebec solidare denounced in particular the exclusion of less qualified workers — often in essential services that were key jobs in recent months as things shut down during the pandemic.
"The truckers brought the goods that fed Quebec during the pandemic, but with the new reform, these people will never be able to aspire to stay in the country permanently," said Andres Fontecilla, the left-leaning party's immigration critic.
This was the case of Donalee Martinez, a trucker of Filipino origin who has travelled long distances for more than two years in the hope of being able to benefit from the program.
"Good enough to work, good enough to stay," he told a downtown Montreal gathering.
Similar demonstrations were held in Sherbrooke, Quebec City and Rouyn-Noranda — an initiative of labour unions, student associations and migrants' rights groups.
Last November, the Legault government was forced to backtrack after a reform proposed by former immigration minister Simon Jolin-Barrette would have seen hundreds of temporary workers and foreign students sent back to their countries due to a retroactive tightening of the program rules.
They were also to include specific university and technical junior college programs in industries the government said were facing labour shortages.
The government has since dropped that limited list.
Girault, who is also international relations minister, added the immigration portfolio on Monday following a surprise cabinet shuffle.
An official in her office said it will take her some time to get up to speed on the reforms, expected to take effect imminently.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2020.
Roxanne Ocampo, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version erroneously stated that the reform was coming into effect Saturday.