Students from around the world went to the National Assembly Tuesday to deliver a message to the Coalition Avenir Québec government: let us stay.
Criticism is mounting over the government's decision to tighten the rules to a program that fast-tracks immigration for recent graduates of Quebec post-secondary institutions, as well as those who have stayed in the province on work permits.
The changes to the Quebec experience program (PEQ) have left thousands of people hoping to settle in Quebec without a clear path forward.
Among them is Jin Xing, a 36-year-old from China who came to Quebec to study commercial drafting.
Up until Nov. 1, when new rules were put in place, Xing believed she would qualify to stay in Quebec under the experience program.
She had been studying French and recently bought a home in Châteauguay with her husband.
Speaking at a news conference alongside fellow foreign students, people here on temporary work permits and opposition politicians, Xing said the government had broken its promise.
"You just cancel the contract without listening to people like us," she said, through tears.
"We're humans. We're abandoned. We're abandoned right now."
The Quebec experience program was initially available to any foreign student who earned a degree in the province, as well as to those on temporary permits who have been here for more than a year.
The CAQ government suspended the program in June as it looked for ways to clear a backlog of applications.
The changes brought in Nov. 1 cut the programs and specialties whose graduates qualify.
In the days since, the reforms have come under increased scrutiny.
Yoshua Bengio, a leader in the city's fast-growing artificial intelligence sector, pointed out master's and PhD graduates in computer science no longer qualify for the Quebec experience program under the changes, making it more difficult to fill jobs in AI.
Quebec Premier François Legault promptly signalled he would be open to tweaking the new rules to ensure the AI sector isn't hurt.
But Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for the opposition Québec Solidaire, said modest changes won't be enough.
"At this point, the only way out for the Legault government is a complete withdrawal of that rule. There was no public debate whatsoever on this topic," he said.
"It's not time to cherry pick and say, 'Oh, artificial intelligence, Mr. Legault likes it, and there was an article in the media, so it's time to add it to the list.'"
Claire De Muns, a political science student at Université de Montréal originally from France, had committed to making a life in Quebec. Her academic work is on Quebec and Canadian politics.
"I feel more Québécoise than French," she said.
"I decided to invest in Quebec because Quebec promised to invest in me."
That's all up in the air now, she said.
In Montreal, meanwhile, dozens of students at a local trade school, the Aviron Institute, staged a protest over the reforms.
Ibrahima Balde, who moved to Montreal from Guinea 18 months ago to train to become an auto mechanic, said he feels "really upset and betrayed."
"That's not what they told us before we started here," he said. "We don't know what to do."
He and others said they spent thousands of dollars to come to Quebec, in the hopes of being able to stay through the Quebec experience program. Balde said the rule change was unexpected, and he hopes it will be reversed.
Focus on labour market, Legault says
In the face of such criticism, Legault said his government's focus, when it comes to economic immigrants, is to address the needs of the labour market.
"What we're saying today is we need to have more students and workers that are related to our needs and our companies. We need more engineers. We need more people in IT, more nurses," he said. "We want to concentrate on these students."
The CAQ government reduced the total number of immigrants last year by more than 20 per cent, to 40,000, including all classes of immigrants.
The target for the coming year is 43,000, of whom 26,000 would be economic immigrants.
"I would love to receive a million refugees, a million people having human problems in their country," he said.
"But there is a limit to the integration we can do, and right now on top of that, we have a real urgency in some sectors, like computers [and] business."