By Jon Milton
Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s Minister of Immigration, was inside the Montreal Chamber of Commerce on November 22, speaking to a who’s-who of Quebec’s business owners. The atmosphere, inside, was tenser than it usually is between the business sector and representatives of Quebec’s ruling right-wing party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). In his speech, titled “The Ambition for Successful Immigration,” Jolin-Barrette’s tone was conciliatory but firm.
The Immigration Minister was speaking to them about his failed plans to dramatically overhaul Quebec’s immigration system. While his first effort had been abandoned in the days prior due to widespread backlash, he insisted that he would try again in the near future. This time, he said, he would be sure to consult more directly with the businesspeople in the room. Representatives of the Chamber of Commerce seemed happy to hear it.
Outside of the $160 per person event, nearly 100 people demonstrated against the minister and the CAQ’s immigration policies. They chanted slogans comparing Jolin-Barette and Quebec Premier Francois Legault to Maurice Duplessis—the corrupt, Catholic conservative, paranoid anti-communist who led Quebec during the decades known as the “Great Darkness.” Legault has previously embraced such comparisons.
The protesters were part of a movement which had sprung up rapidly over the three weeks prior. At the beginning of November, Jolin-Barrette had announced sweeping changed to the provincial immigration system which would make it significantly harder for students and workers to attain permanent residency.
A handful of known racists also showed up outside the Chamber of Commerce. They were there to show support for the CAQ.
The “Tinder of immigration”
Announced on Nov. 1, Jolin-Barrette’s latest plan was to overhaul the Quebec Experience Program (PEQ), a popular program which allowed for immigrants on student visas to apply for permanent residency following the completion of their degrees. It also allowed for migrants on work visas to attain permanent status after a year of full-time work. It’s among the most popular programs that immigrants use to stay in the province.
Quebec holds unique provincial powers to set its own immigration policy in parallel with the federal government. These powers were granted to the province as a result of the 1991 Canada-Quebec Accord.
The biggest change that Jolin-Barrette announced in early November was that, beginning immediately, there would now be a list of educational programs (for students) and job fields (for workers) which are eligible to apply for permanent residency using the PEQ. Those who worked or studied in fields outside the list would no longer be allowed to apply.
Manuel Salamanca Cardona has been in Quebec since 2012, and used the PEQ as his path to permanent residency. He managed to escape the now-scrapped reform, he tells RankandFile.ca, by about two weeks. Otherwise, he would have been precisely one of the people it targeted. Salamanca Cardona got his PhD at McGill university in English. His degree was not on the list.
He says that he applied via the PEQ because it made the most sense for his situation. He also would have been eligible for family reunification—his wife is from Quebec—but he “didn’t want [his] wife’s family to think [they] had married for papers,” he says with a laugh. He also didn’t like idea of getting “the state involved in [their] marriage,” since family reunification cases “need to prove that the marriage is real.” For Salamanca Cardona, like most people who apply for permanent residency after finishing their student visas, the PEQ made the most sense.
The creation of a list of desirable fields, Cheolki Yoon of the Immigrant Workers Centre tells RankandFile.ca, is “instrumentalizing immigration for the job market. That’s the big international tendency.” Yoon specifies that this trend isn’t limited to the CAQ—he says that since 2008, “people who came to Canada with temporary status outnumbered permanent residents.”
What’s new, he says, is that “the CAQ pushes this logic in a radical way.”
The PEQ isn’t the only immigration program the CAQ is working on reforming. Yoon describes how the province has also introduced criteria into the Arrima portal—where would-be migrants can apply for permanent residency as skilled workers—to provide extra points to applicants if their skillset responds to the fluctuations of the labour market. It also adds points for applicants whose job offer is in “the regions,” places outside metropolitan areas, as part of the longstanding plan to “regionalize immigration” in Quebec.
What this adds up to, Yoon says, is an attempt to “make human being subject to arbitrary economic power.” For immigrant workers applying for permanent residency, “this is a life project, a committed project. Not the random fluctuations of the economy.”
Simon Jolin-Barrette has referred to his ideal reform being something like “Tinder of immigration,” where employers can “take the profile of the candidate [and match it] with the job that we need.” Andrés Fontecilla, immigration critic from the left-wing Quebec Solidaire party, tells RankandFile.ca he thinks it’s more accurate to say Jolin-Barrette “thinks that the immigration system is his personal placement agency for workers.”
When Thibault Camara heard the news that the PEQ was being overhauled, he knew he needed to act. Camara had used the program himself, and the idea that others would no longer be able to use it was shocking to him.
He had narrowly escaped Bill 9, the CAQ’s earlier reform which scrapped 18,000 skilled worker applications that were grandfathered out of the Arrima marketization and regionalization program. The suspension of those applications has been temporarily blocked by a court injunction, so old applications continue to be processed, for now.
“There’s an ideological vision behind all of this,” Camara tells RankandFile.ca. “It says that we immigrants, we’re just the disposable workforce. They can let go of us if they want, send us to Rimouski if they want. We’re not humans who have our own dreams and our own ambitions.”
Camara is active in the anti-racist and environmental movements, and used his organizing skills to fight the immigration reform. He plugged into a new group called Collectif ETIQ—whose acronym translates to International Students and Workers of Quebec.
The collective sprung up fast, in response to the reform, but was rapidly able to mobilize international students to put pressure on the provincial government. ETIQ was holding demonstrations outside the National Assembly within just over a week of the proposed changes being announced, doing so by plugging into existing networks of international students and seizing on the widespread panic that resulted from the reform’s announcement.
Now that the reform has been—temporarily—scrapped, ETIQ is moving toward building permanent structures to prepare for the next round.
“Discrimination is the foundation of these laws”
Unions are getting organized as well. Dominique Daigneault, president of the Montreal Metropolitan Central Council of the CSN told RankandFile.ca that opposition to these reforms is necessary for the union movement. “Discrimination is the foundation of these laws,” she says. “We’re doing work on the ground with our members, both immigrants and Quebecois. What’s important to do is to forge solidarity between all workers.”
Daigneault says that during the CSN’s last convention in June, the union took new positions which empowered locals to set up “inter-cultural” organizing projects to “cultivate solidarity.”
“We’re very conscious of this posture from employers,” Daigneault says. “They want to pit us against each other. We aren’t playing their game.”
“Right now, there’s secret negotiations going on between Jolin-Barrette, the business sector, and universities to create a new list,” says Camara. The CAQ received significant pushback from those sectors because the original list failed to include domains that were being prioritized outside the halls of government. The original list also included other unforced errors, such as the inclusion of an anti-feminist university program called Domestic Sciences—basically a university version of home economics—which has not existed since the 20th century.
But for Camara, building a better list isn’t a solution. “Our problem is the list itself,” he says.
Cheolki Yoon of the Immigrant Workers Centre agrees. “The idea of a list doesn’t reflect the reality of the 21st century,” he says. “According to that logic, those who study philosophy have to become philosophers, those in literature have to become authors.”
“What they studied in university, or where they’ve worked before, doesn’t decide their future.”