Legault 'made a mistake' with reforms to student immigration program, Charest says

In a pointed critique, former Quebec premier Jean Charest says the Legault government's changes to a fast-track immigration program for recent post-secondary graduates are a step in the wrong direction.

Criticism has been mounting since reforms to the Quebec experience program (PEQ) came into effect last Friday.

The changes substantially reduce the number of programs and specialties that qualify for the PEQ, which gives foreign students who graduated from Quebec post-secondary institutions a fast track to permanent residency.

"Mr. Legault, in my opinion, made a mistake," Charest said in a phone interview with Radio-Canada. "I'm not saying that this was done in bad faith, but in my opinion the Legault government, on this issue, is on the wrong track.

"For the greatest talents who are at the master's and doctorate level, it goes without saying that we are depriving ourselves of recruitment tools that are very, very effective."

Charest's Liberal government created the program in 2010 to address the lower numbers of international students in Quebec compared with other provinces. The program has been "an immense success," Charest said. This fall there are more than 48,000 international students at Quebec universities. In 2013, there were less than 33,000.

Charest argued that the scope of the program should not be reduced, but instead made even more accessible, and that Quebec needs to work harder to compete for top international talent.

"It's a program that I think should be fairly broad and flexible," he said. "We should make it a business card rather than a barrier to integration."

'We can't go wrong'

The PEQ is an ideal tool for addressing Quebec's skilled labour shortfall, Charest said, because it attracts students who want to integrate into Quebec society and whose qualifications don't need to be verified — because their education takes place at Quebec institutions.

"We need men and women, whether its researchers, professionals, tradespeople — even unskilled labor," Charest said. "And a person who comes to Quebec, who enrolls at a Quebec institution and earns a diploma in Quebec — we can't go wrong in offering them the opportunity to stay here."

The PEQ was available to any foreign student who earned a degree in the province, as well as to people working in the province on temporary permits who have been here for more than a year.

The CAQ government suspended the program in June. On Nov. 1, changes took effect that cut the number of programs and specialties whose graduates qualify.

Charest said he is hopeful about Legault's statements on Monday that he is willing to adjust the program after a prominent AI researcher voiced concerns.

"In my opinion, yes, I hope he'll realize that it's a mistake to tighten up the program," Charest said. "We should do the opposite. We should expand it, make it as accessible as possible."

Under the last Liberal governments, wait times to obtain the Quebec Selection Certificate, the first step toward permanent residence, increased significantly. This was mainly because the number of people selected exceeded the number of people admitted to the province each year, which caused significant delays.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has often repeated that he must "fix" the province's immigration system, attributing the problems to the provincial Liberals.

"That's politics," Charest said. "I understand that when politicians are in the heat of the moment, it's part of the game to blame the previous government."

In his view, the Legault government's measures, including the introduction of Bill 9, which led to a legal challenge in February, "left a mark" on the province.

"It's essentially creates the impression of additional barriers to enter Quebec, when it should be quite the opposite."