The global competition to attract highly skilled workers fiercely continues regardless of where countries stand in relation to other forms of immigration and asylum. This is due to the estimates that in the years to come, serious skills shortages will be experienced. The European Union has been paying specific attention to this too with a view to strengthening its competitiveness. With this in mind, the Blue Card Directive was adopted in 2009, entailing attractive conditions such as an accelerated procedure, socio-economic rights and facilitation of family reunification for highly skilled migrants. In 2016, in order to respond to the shortcomings, a proposal for a new Blue Card Directive was presented with more favorable conditions. Despite these efforts, Canada is much more attractive for highly skilled workers than the entirety of the EU.
One of the most important gateways for highly skilled workers to migrate to Canada is the Quebec-Selected Skilled Workers Program. Pursuant to an agreement between Quebec and the central government, the province has the sole responsibility for the selection of immigrants destined to the province and the central government is under the obligation to admit any immigrant selected by Quebec as long as the immigrant is not in an inadmissible class under the laws of Canada. In practice, once highly skilled workers obtain a Quebec Selection Certificate (Certificat de sélection du Québec), they can apply to the Canadian government in order to obtain a Permanent Resident Status. The primary way to obtain the Quebec Selection Certificate is the Quebec Experience Program or the PEQ as it is commonly known based on its French abbreviation (Programme de l'expérience québécoise). The PEQ was developed in order to address the lower numbers of foreign students choosing to study in Quebec in comparison to the other provinces of Canada. As a result, the numbers have gone up drastically, making the PEQ a success. Compared to the regular selection program for skilled workers, the PEQ offers an accelerated selected program for skilled workers who are either temporary foreign workers or for those who hold an eligible Quebec diploma. Thereby the PEQ is a very important trajectory in migrating to Canada as a skilled worker. It is with this reason that the recent changes, which took effect on 22 July regarding the eligibility criteria for the PEQ as well as the way in which these changes have come about are worrisome for Canada's continued attractiveness for highly skilled workers.
Previously, anyone holding an eligible Quebec diploma (Bachelor, Master, Doctoral, College, Technical, Vocational) and with knowledge of advanced intermediate oral French could apply to the PEQ within 36 months of receiving their diploma. As for temporary workers, they could apply to the PEQ if they were employed full-time in Quebec in any occupation for a period of 12 months in total within the last 24 months. The (de facto) spouse of the PEQ applicant (for Quebec graduates or temporary workers) could also be included in the application regardless of their qualifications.
In October 2019, the Quebec Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness Simon Jolin-Barrette announced a new proposal for the PEQ, which contained drastic changes for eligibility aimed at matching candidates with the specific needs of the province. While under the old rules all degrees were adequate for applying for permanent residency, under the proposal the diplomas had to be included on the 'List of Areas of Training under PEQ – Graduates' to be eligible limiting the eligible diplomas to seven Doctorate, 24 Masters, 65 Bachelors and 59 College programs. Likewise, temporary foreign workers would be eligible for the PEQ if they held a job which was on the 'List of Jobs in Demand', bringing the number of eligible jobs from 500 to 160. Furthermore, the (de facto) spouse of the applicant would have to demonstrate advanced intermediate knowledge of spoken French, just as the applicant him/herself. On top of this, the applicant as well as his/her (de facto) spouse and dependent children above the age of 18 would have to acquire an 'attestation of the learning of democratic values and Quebec values expressed in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms'.
What followed was an avalanche of protests against the proposal especially from universities, opposition and representatives of increasingly important areas which would be left out of eligibility, such as AI. The proposed changes would, without a doubt, significantly weaken the attractiveness of the universities in the province for foreign students. The local government was quick in reacting to the critique by temporarily suspending the changes made to the PEQ on 8 November 2019. Subsequently, a period of uncertainty started for the foreign students and temporary workers in Quebec.
On 28 May 2020, the Draft Regulation to amend the Quebec Immigration Regulation for the Programme de l'expérience québécoise was published in the Gazette officielle du Québec, followed by a 30-day time period during which stakeholders could submit recommendations and comments. The result of the analysis was made public on 9 July 2020. According to the changes, which took effect on 22 July, Quebec returns to the initial eligibility criteria regarding diplomas, that is to say, all of the diplomas that used to be admissible will once more be admissible for the PEQ. This clearly reveals that the pressure from universities, which otherwise would have suffered losses in the areas of studies not covered by the previously proposed PEQ, has been effective. However, a Quebec graduate is no longer eligible for the PEQ directly after obtaining his or her diploma. Instead, a 12-month full-time work experience (18 months for graduates of vocational study programs) is required for graduates who wish to submit an application for permanent selection under the PEQ. In order to fulfil this requirement, graduates are expected to apply for a 36-month valid post-graduate work permit from the federal government. Even though the work experience does not have to be related to the graduate's area of training, there are some restrictions which apply to the classification of the jobs that may be counted towards the work experience requirement. While full-time internships of a paid or unpaid nature can be taken into consideration, this is limited to a maximum duration of three months. The 12-month full-time work experience requirement is unreasonable, especially amidst the COVID-19 public health crisis and its economic consequences. The number of workers who have become unemployed or have to work less than half their usual hours for reasons due to COVID-19 is still staggeringly high. To expect third country nationals who have recently graduated to find full-time employment in this economy is not realistic. Furthermore, the job classifications allowed to count towards the accumulation of the work experience requirement excludes occupations such as food and beverage service workers and general office workers which are the sectors most likely to employ young graduates. Another bizarre aspect of the new rules is that the work experience does not have to be in the area of the graduate's training. At first sight, this might seem as a positive aspect of the new rules as it presents the graduate with a wider range of jobs to try and secure full-time employment. However, the question then arises as to the purpose of the work experience requirement: how would this contribute to the proclaimed objective of the PEQ reform, namely, to ensure the optimal alignment of Quebec's labour needs with the potential of immigrants wishing to settle there. Finally, not allowing exemptions for those who are already living in Quebec in the form of a transitional period leads to great unfairness on account of the future plans of current students. Many students decide where to study based on the prospects of permanent residence upon graduation.
For temporary workers, the requirement of having acquired 12 months of work experience during the 24 months preceding the PEQ application is altered to having accumulated 24 months of work experience over the 36 months preceding the application. The categories of occupations which ensure access to the PEQ are also limited with the recent changes. In addition, the (de facto) spouses are expected to demonstrate their knowledge of the French language.
Quebec traditionally has more authority in regulating migration in comparison to other provinces. However, the changes are capable of negatively affecting Canada's efforts in attracting highly skilled workers in general; as well as very likely curb highly skilled migration to Quebec due to the discrepancy created in terms of criteria for permanent residency among provinces. Since the changes to the PEQ are likely to negatively impact Canada's and Quebec's attractiveness for highly skilled workers, this will, in the long run, overshadow whatever political gains were intended with the reform. In a time when most countries globally as well as the European Union are developing increasingly more beneficial programs to attract highly skilled migrants, Quebec's backsliding towards a 'fortress' approach is worrisome. Also, the way in which these changes have been announced, without any prior consultation with the stakeholders, then temporarily suspended, modified and re-introduced, constitute bad governance leading to the weakening of legal certainty. Unfortunately, the ones who will be affected the most will be students and workers who have travelled to Quebec to enroll in higher education and to work in temporary employment with hopes of settling there.