Quebec Premier François Legault says his government is open to walking back reforms that critics say could hamper the recruitment of young talent in Montreal's burgeoning field of artificial intelligence.
"If it's necessary to adjust, we will adjust," he said Monday.
"The mandate of [Immigration Minister] Simon Jolin-Barrette is to concentrate on the labour shortage."
The premier's comments come after Université de Montréal Prof. Yoshua Bengio — a leading voice in AI and the founder of Mila, the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute — warned changes to the Quebec experience program which went into effect on Nov. 1 will hurt the industry's recruitment efforts.
The Quebec experience program, which gives foreign students who graduated from Quebec post-secondary institutions a fast track to permanent residency, used to be available to any foreign student who earned a degree in the province, as well as to people working in the province on temporary permits who have been here for more than a year.
Immigration Minister Jolin-Barrette announced last week the government has cut the number of programs and specialties whose graduates qualify for the program. Masters and doctorate graduates in computer science are not on the list.
AI still a priority?
The vast majority of students and researchers at Mila — a partnership between the Université de Montréal, McGill, Polytechnique and HEC Montréal — are not Canadian: there are currently 339 foreign students out of a total of 435 students.
Denying computer science students like them eligibility to the Quebec experience program "could have a serious impact on AI in Quebec," Bengio told Radio-Canada.
"It's a bit odd. I spoke with several people in the government, including the premier, and they still seem to see AI as a priority."
In announcing the changes last Friday, Jolin-Barrette said the government is attempting to better respond to the needs of the labour market.
The students or temporary workers will be selected under the Quebec experience program if there is a shortfall of workers in the field in which they're trained, he said.
"We want to make sure that when we welcome an immigrant, there is a job at the end of the day for that person," said Jolin-Barrette.
Changes leaves thousands in lurch
Immigration lawyer Ho Sung Kim estimates there are hundreds of thousands of people who are no longer eligible under the Quebec experience program due to the changes.
He said anyone whose field is not listed will now have to apply for permanent residency through the regular skilled worker program or leave the province.
At least, Kim said, Quebec should give students and workers a year's warning before implementing the new criteria.