Are the PEQ reforms emblematic of the xenophobic tendencies of the government of Quebec? The short answer is — it’s complicated.
A recent editorial in the McGill Tribune, a student-run newspaper from McGill University, makes the case that the new Programme Experience Quebecoise (PEQ) reforms highlight the xenophobic sentiments held by the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), the governing party of Quebec.
PEQ: What is it and what are the changes
Prior to the reforms implemented on July 22, 2020, students did not require any work experience to be eligible for the PEQ. They needed sufficient knowledge of the French language and to have graduated from an eligible Quebec degree/diploma program. Now graduates require at least 12 months of full-time work experience to apply.
For workers, the PEQ reforms mean that anyone with experience in lower-skilled, service industry work, would become ineligible for the program.
The case for xenophobia
One of the CAQ’s campaign promises they ran on in 2018 was to reduce immigration levels to Quebec by 20%, from 50,000 to 40,000. So from the beginning, the CAQ was seeking to limit immigration to the province while the federal government was looking to increase immigration targets for the country.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic that sent shockwaves through the Canadian economy. Many people lost their jobs. It was during this period that the CAQ chose to implement the new PEQ reforms.
If you are a temporary worker in Quebec who lost your job, you might be forced to take a service level position at a restaurant and therefore become ineligible for PEQ. Many studies have concluded that newcomers to Canada face higher levels of persistent underemployment when compared to native-born Canadians. During a global pandemic, as the economy contracts, it’s likely that persistent underemployment for newcomers to Canada will become more acute and further limit their eligibility for the PEQ.
For students who are graduating soon and hope to apply to the PEQ, they are entering into an economy that is still suffering under a global pandemic. Under the new regulations, years of study and knowledge of French aren’t good enough. Students now need 12 months of skilled work experience, which given the current economic situation, is more difficult than ever.
The case against xenophobia
If persistent underemployment of newcomers is a major problem, one could argue that ensuring PEQ applicants are working in a skilled position will create better outcomes for their future lives in Quebec.
And not all PEQ candidates require skilled work experience. As long as an applicant is a graduate of a Quebec diploma program, and the low-skilled work experience is related to the program of study, they are still eligible to apply to the PEQ.
The changes to the PEQ cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Context is everything. Many view previous efforts by the CAQ government of promoting xenophobic sentiments. The major one being Bill 21, the religious symbols ban. Bill 21 prohibits government workers in positions of authority from displaying symbols of religion. Many have argued that Bill 21 is designed to exclude people, whose religious affiliation requires them to wear overt symbols of their faith, from positions of authority in Quebec.
Quebec also fought the federal government to limit the types of essential workers eligible for a new residency program. The federal government was planning to offer the residency program to a wide range of candidates who were working in essential services during the pandemic, like food service staff and other industries. But pressure from the CAQ government to their federal counterparts narrowed the eligible candidates to healthcare workers only.
Then there was the controversial values test the CAQ government choose to implement for newcomers aspiring to immigrate to Quebec. Many claimed the values test was a political move that played up anti-immigrant sentiments. Marjorie Villefranche, director of the Maison d’Haiti, a Montreal community centre servicing the Haitian community, said the values test was nothing more than a political ploy.
“They’re trading on the idea that we’re going to clamp down on immigrants, that there are too many immigrants who don’t know our values,” she said. “This works for the CAQ.”
If one only looks at the reforms to the PEQ, one could equally debate both sides of the argument. The PEQ changes are either xenophobic or in the best interest of the applicant. But when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s difficult not to see political opportunism at play.
The CAQ has sought to limit immigration, limit the opportunities of newcomers of faith in the workforce, and propose a values test that makes it seem like immigrants to Quebec lack the basic understanding of the culture they wish to be a part of.
PEQ applicants have made significant contributions to Quebec. They pay years worth of international tuition and contribute to the Quebec labour market. They are deserving of respect. Implementing reforms like the changes to the PEQ, during a global pandemic, is far from the respect they deserve.