It was hailed by former premier Jean Charest as a way to fast-track immigration to Quebec. But now hundreds of foreign students risk having their residency applications rejected after having spent thousands of dollars on government-approved French courses.
The students are graduates of the Programme d'expérience québécoise (PEQ), a vocational and French-language study program run by the province's school boards.
It is aimed at giving foreign students access to a Quebec selection certificate, an immigration document that is the first step toward permanent residency.
"From now on, a foreign student who obtains his diploma here will get offered a selection certificate to immigrate to Quebec," said then premier Jean Charest in March 2009 when the program was first announced.
But students who have graduated from the program are being called in for interviews by Quebec's Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness (MIDI) to evaluate their French.
Many are having their applications for selection certificates turned down after the test.
'Maybe I have to go back to my country'
As of March 17, 585 files were subject to verification by MIDI officials, according to the Quebec Association of Immigration Lawyers. Of those, 321 have had their applications either refused or rejected.
The association is condemning the situation, saying the lives of hundreds of immigration candidates are up in the air, when all they did was follow French courses given by organizations approved by Quebec's Ministry of Education.
Immigration lawyers say most of those called in for an interview took their PEQ course either through the Lester B. Pearson School Board or the English Montreal School Board. The EMSB charges foreign students an average of $24,000 for the course.
Long-distance truck driver Inderpreet Singh Samra is among those to have been called in for a follow-up interview. He says he has spent as much as $40,000 on French courses, applications and living expenses since he came to Quebec from India in 2014.
He says he might have to leave if he doesn't receive a positive response from the interview.
"Maybe I have to go back to my country when my work permit will expire," said Singh Samra. "Otherwise I'll have to move to any other province so that I can go there, work and apply for my permanent residency again."
Singh Samra says his preference is to remain in Quebec. "If I have to move somewhere else, then I have to start my life again, and I'm not feeling good about that."
Legal action pending
Immigration lawyer David Chalk accuses the government of punishing people who have done nothing wrong.
"They've done everything the government told them they needed to do to qualify for permanent residence in Quebec," said Chalk.
"And now, at the end of the game, when they've done everything, we're changing the rules."
One Montreal law firm, Irving Mitchell Kalichman, has filed an application for a judicial review in Quebec Superior Court on behalf of four students who had their selection certificate rejected after completing the PEQ program.
Legal documents obtained by CBC show that each of the four students received a letter earlier this year stating: "Seeing as we have motive to believe you supplied false or misleading information or documents regarding your level of French knowledge, you are asked to demonstrate the veracity of the information at an interview."
Audrey Boctor, one of the lawyers representing the students in the court challenge, said it should be up to the minister to correct any shortcomings with the French course.
"The minister should not be faulting the students for having followed a course that's on the minister's approved list of courses," Boctor said.
Once an application for a selection certificate is rejected a immigrant can be banned for five years from applying again.
Hurts effort to attract immigrants, lawyer says
In an email response, Immigration Ministry spokesman Jonathan Lavallée said the ministry recently identified certain practices used to circumvent the objectives of the program.
He also said an investigation by the province's anti-corruption unit, UPAC, is underway, but he refused to elaborate. Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil also refused to comment citing the ongoing UPAC investigation.
The English Montreal School Board says it learned about the issue through media requests, and not from the ministry itself.
In a statement, the EMSB said the way the course is evaluated might not favour the students.
"International students may pass the school board course by doing well on the written, reading and comprehension portion, but not perform well on the oral part," said Angela Mancini, EMSB chairwoman.
"The MIDI only evaluates the oral component via an interview."
Mancini has requested a meeting with Weil to discuss the matter. The Lester B. Pearson School Board declined to comment to CBC.
For immigration lawyer David Chalk, the province is hurting its efforts to attract immigrants.
"We are now really doing material harm to our reputation as an immigration destination by behaving the way we are, by changing the rules in an unfair way after the game has already been played," he said.