The fact that Immigration Canada discriminates against Black students from French-speaking Africa is something researchers and observers of Québec and Canadian politics have been documenting and denouncing for years.
Once again this month, we learned from a study by the Institut du Québec (IDQ) that the federal government is refusing half of the applications for study permits to foreign students who were selected by Québec and accepted by a Québec university. This figure increases to 72 per cent for African students.
Denunciation of this discrimination, and of the federal government’s inaction on it, goes far beyond the circle of immigration experts. Leaders of French-language higher education institutions, political actors and civil society are now speaking out as well.
As researchers in the fields of political sociology and the sociological and ethnological study of nationalisms and interethnic relations, we are interested in social transformations in Québec and Canada, as well as social representations of immigration.
On a global scale, this discrimination sends a very bad message to Canada’s partners in the Organisation internationale de la francophonie. At the Canadian level, it has an impact on the vitality of institutions in francophone communities outside Québec.
At the Québec level, it has an impact on the vitality of programs in regional colleges and universities. At the Montréal level, it also has an impact on the vitality of French language higher education institutions and, in particular, on the capacity of the Université du Québec to fulfill its social mission.
Québec has done its homework
This situation was well known when the Liberal Party of Canada became a minority government in 2019. It was also known when the same government won again in 2021, still as a minority government. The data just published by the IDQ are indisputable: the situation continued in 2022.
Although there have been modest improvements in some places, this has not reversed a stubborn and persistent underlying trend. The data show that despite warnings, denunciations and investigations by many journalists, Immigration Canada is still dragging its feet.
The Québec government has not always been immune to criticism in this area. The immigration reform piloted in 2020 by Simon Jolin-Barrette drew criticism for a variety of reasons. One of these was a change to the Québec Experience Program that slowed, if not hindered access to citizenship for foreign students studying in Québec.
Québec’s new immigration minister, Christine Fréchette, has been much more far-sighted, informed and pragmatic. Her promise to reorient the Québec government’s immigration policy is in tune with the higher education community. These circles have long recognized the importance of offering a fast track to citizenship for students who have gotten work experience through their studies, internships and the networks they developed in Québec.
Immigration Canada’s inaction is incomprehensible
This shift by Québec’s Minister of Immigration, Francization and Integration is in line with the informed opinions of Quebec’s higher education institutions. It also brings hope to Montréal’s French-language higher education community, which has been complaining for several years that it is not competing on a level playing field with English-language institutions of higher learning.
The latter operate in a completely different market than French-language universities. Since the removal of the ceiling on fees for foreign students, English-language higher education institutions have been earning significantly more revenue than French-language institutions. Many actors in the education sector have denounced how this systemic inequality reduces the attractiveness of French-language institutions, and in particular, the ability of the Université du Québec network to fulfill its mission of academic and social integration.
Faced with this major change in direction by the Québec government, the inaction of Immigration Canada is all the more incomprehensible.
After Sean Fraser blamed his department’s discriminatory practices on algorithmic errors, subcontracted the work of its officials to the McKinsey firm, acknowledged a problem of systemic discrimination within its own organization and promised to address this problem, the 2022 figures from his department show the same misfires and the same discriminatory practices as in previous years.
In an embarrassing moment, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister was asked to defend his record. The slight increase in acceptances that she mentioned does not meet the legitimate expectations of students whose applications have been accepted by a Québec institution.
Minister Fraser no longer has the legitimacy required
Ottawa must draw conclusions from this new data. If the Trudeau government were not championing the fight against systemic racism in every forum, it might be possible to overlook this lack of credibility on the part of its minister. But at this point, federal Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Fraser no longer has the legitimacy to retain this file.
The failure of the Liberal Party to act on such an important issue for Québec and Canada’s francophone communities is regrettable. It casts a shadow over the important success of the update of the Official Languages Act, the passage of which was rightly celebrated by both federal and Québec governments.
If we want to celebrate the new version of the Official Languages Act, we must be consistent and provide access to French-language higher education institutions to all students who want to contribute to the vibrancy of Canada’s francophone communities.
We should be pleased that the Québec government got this message. It is more than regrettable that it is taking so long for Ottawa to understand it.