Last November, the Quebec government announced a special incentive for international students in its 2024-25 immigration plan. The government is once again welcoming students enrolled in Francophone programs via the graduate stream of the Quebec Experience Program (PEQ).
The PEQ can help fast-track the Quebec immigration process. Eligible applicants can obtain their selection certificate, a mandatory step toward permanent residency, in only a few weeks. The certificate typically takes months to obtain.
The ups and downs of student immigration
In 2019, the Quebec government suspended the PEQ graduate stream. Then that year, it announced its intention to only allow access to students in fields affected by labour shortages.
Following widespread outcry over the decision, the government backed down and reverted to the old system, though it remained intent on reforming the program. In May 2020, certain eligibility requirements were added. Students now had to prove they had acquired at least one year of full-time work experience in Quebec. Processing times also increased from 20 days to six months. The move provoked yet another firestorm of criticism.
“The reform led to a drastic drop in PEQ applications despite a strong increase in international student numbers,” said Catherine Bibeau-Lorrain, the spokesperson for the Quebec Student Union. “It was a serious cause for concern.” The union lobbied to have the new requirements shelved.
Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières president Christian Blanchette found that the PEQ reform was making his graduates think twice about staying in Quebec. Instead, they were considering relocating elsewhere in Canada to obtain their permanent residency more quickly. “We were on the verge of losing skilled workers, in the middle of a major labour shortage,” he said. “People who had already integrated into Quebec society.”
In the ensuing mayhem, the government set up a parliamentary committee to oversee new PEQ reforms. In November 2023, it unveiled an updated list of eligibility criteria. “A number of stakeholders who participated in the consultations and in our regional town hall asked us to make the PEQ more accessible, and we listened,” said Christine Fréchette, the Quebec Minister of Immigration, Francization and Integration.
Applicants were no longer required to have a year of Quebec work experience under their belts or be employed at the time of their application. The government also expanded access from priority sectors to all fields of study.
As a further measure, applications for the student stream of the PEQ will only be accepted once their permanent residence applications are submitted to the federal government. Consequently, the roughly 6,500 student applications the Quebec government expects in 2024 will not count toward its annual target of 50,000 immigrants.
“These graduates are prime immigration candidates,” Minister Fréchette said. “We don’t have to worry about diploma recognition. They’ve already lived in Quebec, which increases their retention rate, and they’re ready to enter the labour market. Plus, many of them have studied in the regions and will foreseeably settle there.”
The new open-deadline policy also solved the problem that prompted the Quebec government to review the PEQ graduate stream in 2019, which had been so appealing that skilled workers found themselves at a disadvantage. By the time annual immigration targets were reached, too many students had passed through the PEQ and not enough skilled workers. “Excluding graduate students from the annual immigration targets means the two programs won’t be competing against each other,” Minister Fréchette added.
Contributing to the vitality of the French language
Quebec’s academic community greeted the latest PEQ reforms with enthusiasm. “We were particularly pleased to see the government waive the work experience requirement,” Dr. Blanchette said, “and exclude graduates from its immigration targets.”
There’s still one detail that remains controversial.. As of November 2024, only students who completed at least three years of full-time studies in French in Quebec or elsewhere, or completed a program of study in which 75 per cent of the courses or credits were conducted in French, will be able to submit an application.
This is a radical departure from the previous policy, which only required candidates to demonstrate proficiency in French (for example, by providing the results of an approved language test). “We were surprised that students who study in English were excluded from the PEQ without having the chance to demonstrate their proficiency in French,” said McGill University deputy provost, Fabrice Labeau.
He disagrees with the Quebec government’s argument that students from abroad or from other Canadian provinces who enroll at McGill and Concordia University negatively impact the state of French in Montreal.
“It’s not our job to keep French from sliding in Montreal,” Dr. Labeau said. “Our role is to attract the very best students, convince some of them to stay here and help them integrate and learn French.” The Quebec government is asking English institutions to go above and beyond in “francizing” students, especially those who wish to stay and work in Quebec.
The Association québécoise des avocats et avocates en droit de l’immigration (AQAADI) also recoiled at the new measures. Laurence Trempe, AQAADI’s president, said, “The government is excluding students who may have mastered French on the pretext that they didn’t study in that language. This excludes international students who studied in English, but whose second or third language may be French.” A more reasonable approach would be to have the student demonstrate their written and oral French skills, she said.
More importantly, Ms. Trempe would like to see an end to overhauls in the graduate stream requirements. “The people who are thinking about studying and perhaps settling here need to be able to plan for the long term,” she said.