Two weeks ago, news broke that the Quebec government was suspending its controversial reforms to the Quebec Experience Program — a popular immigration program that fast-tracks residency for international students.

The backtracking was the latest embarrassing mishap for the governing Coalition Avenir Québec, culminating in a barrage of public criticism that would force its unwilling politicians to put legal changes on hold and take a closer look at their flawed decision-making process.

Skilled workers program

It all started when the Quebec government attempted to throw out 18,000 applications from skilled workers earlier this year. Before Bill 9, the CAQ’s immigration reform bill, had even passed, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette ordered ministry staff to stop processing the applications.

That obviously didn’t sit well with the 50,000 people represented by those 18,000 applications. It equally outraged everyone impacted by the move — immigration lawyers who had been working with many of the applicants for years and employers dealing with the consequences of severe labour shortages. While an injunction was initially granted, the CAQ eventually passed Bill 9 last June, giving the government the legal right to effectively throw out these applications and the dreams that went along with them.

Quebec Experience Program

A few weeks ago, in their continued attempts to slash immigration, the CAQ decided that many of the students under the specialized (and highly successful) Quebec Experience Program (QEP) would no longer be eligible, and that no grandfather clause would apply. The reforms limited admissibility through the program to students in 218 academic disciplines “needed by employers.” Again, thousands of highly qualified, motivated, and already integrated international students, many already working in Quebec, were suddenly left in the lurch.

The out-of-the-blue decision left everyone in shock — including universities that were never consulted about this change. In a rare show of unity, all three opposition parties reacted strongly against a reform that not only was deeply counterproductive to Quebec’s labour needs but was — once again — deeply inhumane and treated humans as mere commodities to be exploited and cast aside.

Interviewed by media, tearful international students expressed their sense of betrayal, anger and frustration at having entered into a contract with a government that decided midstream it would no longer honour it. Opposition politicians spoke of embarrassment and shame.

University deans and professors warned of the international talent Quebec was in danger of alienating, as well as the significant contributions international students make to this province. Citizens and media pundits expressed bewilderment and anger at witnessing people’s dreams shattered with no justification or empathy for their predicament.

Comedy of errors

Twenty-four hours later, the government backpedalled and decided that it would grandfather these students in, allowing them to stay. Both Premier François Legault and Jolin-Barrette spoke of being “moved by their tearful testimony” as if they were benevolent autocrats responding to pleas for mercy, and not two public officials playing Russian roulette with people’s lives, reneging on a contract the provincial government they were democratically sworn in to represent had in essence signed.

Not only did their actions cause stress and insecurity (McGill Law School Dean Robert Leckey revealed on Twitter that the school’s mental-health counsellors met with foreign students in distress), it tarnished Quebec’s reputation as a desirable destination for educated, motivated, and qualified foreigners who are looking for a new home.

Legault then dug in his heels and compounded his government’s embarrassing missteps by telling journalists he was suspicious of the motives of members of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, as well as university and CEGEP administrations that had slammed his immigration reforms. He claimed these institutions were motivated by money. The contradiction of an accountant and successful former businessperson expressing suspicion over immigration’s economic benefits, in order to undermine his critics’ credibility, only served to undermine his.

Legault then topped off that week by seeking support in the unlikeliest of places, telling journalists that Ontario Premier Doug Ford agreed with his immigration reforms. (Because a reckless and impulsive populist and alleged former hash dealer is clearly the immigration scholar we’ve all been looking for.)

The public outcry escalated when journalists discovered that the information the CAQ was using to decide which immigrants they would accept and which they would refuse was based on an outdated list of university programs that included home economics, which had been offered to women in the previous century. The government had no choice but to suspend the reforms and go back to the drawing table.

No understanding of immigration

The CAQ’s goal of reducing immigration or “tailoring it” according to the labour market’s current or expected needs betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the province’s labour needs and the benefits of immigration.

Quebec is aging rapidly. By 2031, a quarter of the province’s population will be 65 years and older. Not only does the province need more people to sustain and pay for generous social programs, like subsidized daycare, it needs to fill its historic labour shortages. Its reticence to heed the warnings of business groups could have long-standing consequences for its current and future economic prosperity.

The provincial government’s insistence on picking immigrants through an increasingly narrow scope of specific labour needs is also doomed to failure. Most immigration experts agree criteria like that are impossible to gauge. In Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, economist and financial journalist Philippe Legrain does a thorough job of debunking the myth that “government workers are ever really in a position to adequately assess which workers the economy needs at any given time.” First, because the market’s needs fluctuate so widely and so quickly, and second, the human variable is so unpredictable, with an individual’s academic skills or degree offering only a small clue of what their future employment or societal contributions will be.

So far, the Quebec government has refused to consult all concerned experts and parties directly affected by its reforms and prefers to operate based on erroneous assumptions about immigration being a problem that needs to be tackled, instead of an opportunity to be embraced. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the CAQ’s fundamental inability to understand both the complex process of immigration and its long-term benefits is putting the province’s future prosperity and social cohesion at risk.