On Sept. 12, activist group Le Quebec c’est nous aussi held a protest against proposed reforms to the Programme experience Quebecoise (PEQ), a fast-track immigration program for international students who wish to permanently reside in Quebec after graduation. While similar reforms proposed (and later suspended) last November sought to impose new French language requirements, these new changes target employment: Those seeking the certification must now have at least 12 months of work experience of a suitable “skill level.” This caveat creates significant barriers to eligibility, especially during a pandemic that makes it difficult to find stable employment. At their core, the changes are yet another example of the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ)’s disgracefully xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment. The burden should not fall solely on international students to oppose this policy. Rather, McGill’s administration must do better to protect them, and other students must meaningfully oppose these changes.
Immigration reform was one of the CAQ’s core campaign promises in 2018. At the time, now-premier Francois Legault vowed to reduce the number of immigrants allowed into Quebec from 50,000 to 40,000 per year and impose a French-language test and a xenophobic “values test” after three years of living in the province. These policies play into anti-immigrant attitudes in Quebec, which have grown substantially in recent years. The current PEQ reforms are not the first example of the party attempting to limit newcomers, and there is little chance they will be the last. Even beyond immigration, other legislation such as Bill 21, which prohibits public workers from wearing religious garments on the job, propagates xenophobia and hate.
Under the new PEQ guidelines, students would have to work for 12 months in a type 0 (managerial), A (professional) or B (technical) job upon graduation. A student who is unable to find this kind of employment and ends up working as a restaurant server, for example, will be ineligible for the program. Students who have spent years studying in the province while completing internships and volunteer work will nevertheless be considered ‘unskilled’ by the CAQ’s standards. These classist changes undermine the value of this equally valuable labour and favour those with the privilege often necessary to solidify a “professional” job after graduation.
While finding stable employment in a field the CAQ government deems desirable is difficult at the best of times, the pandemic has made it even more challenging. As many companies have not even rehired furloughed employees who were laid off earlier this year, they are less likely to consider new candidates until the economic situation improves. Even more shameful is that these changes come after the province spent months touting the importance of essential workers, including grocery store cashiers and restaurant workers, who would not be eligible for immigration under the revisions to the PEQ. The CAQ considers it acceptable to jeopardize these workers’ safety, yet refuses to see them as valuable enough to remain here permanently. In this context, an emphasis on skill and experience is all the more dehumanizing.
As in November 2019, when the last reform package was proposed, McGill has taken a relatively quiet stance against the reforms compared to other Montreal universities. After all, such programs are not nearly as stringent in provinces like Ontario, and the university wants to retain its international student base. McGill relies heavily on funding from international student tuition; the very least they can do is stand up for them. However, a statement in opposition does little to change the situation in a tangible way. McGill has a responsibility to use its influence to fight against these reforms and provide sufficient funding for services like the Legal Information Clinic and International Student Services, which help international students navigating information and seeking guidance on these issues. Simultaneously, it must avoid implementing changes, like its recent international tuition hike, that serve as additional barriers to students’ ability to study and live in Quebec.
Students also have a role to play in opposing the reforms. As a result of public outcry and student activism following the changes proposed to the PEQ last November, the CAQ eventually abandoned the revisions. The same must happen now. Those currently in Montreal need to use their voices and attend demonstrations in support of international students who may not be able to show up physically due to COVID-19 and support organizations like Le Quebec c’est nous aussi. The student body would be nothing without its international population, and it is vital that they get the support they deserve.