Protesters gathered on Saturday to demand that the provincial government regularize the status of all migrant workers.
“We are essential, we are not disposable,” shouted a spokesperson for Pinay Quebec, one of the many organizations present at a rally held last Saturday. Protestors were demanding the provincial government regularize the immigration status of essential workers across the province and grant them permanent residency.
Organized by The Coalition Against Precarious Work and The Immigrant Workers Center, about 100 people gathered at Peace Park, in front of Québec’s immigration ministry’s head offices on Saint-Laurent Boul.
They shouted slogans, held speeches and played music to protest what the group says is “immigration discrimination,” on the part of the government. Everyone present was respecting social distancing and wearing masks.
Many migrant workers, several in essential jobs, are finding themselves in precarious migration situations because of the difficulty in getting permanent residency. This prevents many from accessing basic social services like EI or health insurance, as well as finding employment they are eligible for.
“This event is meant to mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic,” said Benoit Scowen, an organizer with the Immigrant Worker Center. He added that it was meant to create discussion on how COVID-19 has “impacted the most precarious workers in this province.”
Protestors were demanding change to the immigration system that would address a lot of the sources of these workers’ precarity.
The group that organized the event has 7 demands for the provincial government. These include granting status for all, implementing fair recruitment practices for employment and having realistic language requirements.
This is in addition to a demand for protection for international students and access to healthcare and public benefits for migrants.
I want to work
Many of the protestors present were essential workers in precarious situations due to their immigration status. Hugo Campos, a currently unemployed aircraft mechanic, was one of them.
Originally from Santiago, Chile, Campos was recruited by an employment placement agency and came to Canada with his family in 2018. But like many, he lost his job in April of 2020 due to the Pandemic.
Because he is on a closed work permit, he is barred from working for any employer other than the one that initially hired him. In his case that is the placement agency that recruited him.
His work permit is only valid for that specific employer and they have not reassigned him to another job and he cannot do it himself.
“I couldn’t go to work in McDonald’s or UPS or anything,” said Campos, adding that no one would hire him because of his status. “I’m stuck here. It’s been a year, I’m struggling with my family with just Employment Insurance. And this thing has got a change.”
His frustration with the current system was very clear. “We came here to work,” said Campos. “We got two hands, two legs. We can work. You know, we don’t want anything free.” he concluded.
Political ill will
This sentiment was also echoed by Québec-Solidaire MNA for Laurier Dorion Andrés Fontecilla, who was present at the protest. He said he wanted to see the current provincial government make it easier for temporary workers and residents to access permanent residency.
“The first step is to stop digging this division between two classes,” said Fontecilla, “there are people who have access to all these rights and people who have access to essentially no rights, but work and work very hard!”
Fontecilla says he has tried to petition the government regarding the issue but feels they are acting out of ill will. “I think this government doesn’t like migrants with precarious status and doesn’t recognize their contribution to society,” stated Fontecilla, adding that they have multiplied the administrative hurdles they have to go through.
Fontecilla also added that this stance does not reflect the will of the Québec population. “If we show them everything these people did and do for Québec society, they will welcome them with open arms,” stated Fontecilla.
“There are humanitarian reasons, yes,” concluded Fontecilla, but also added these were practical and economic considerations because “these people work.”
Although all protestors were there for serious reasons, it did not impede demonstrators from creating a festive environment on one of the first warm days of the year.
Music was played on loudspeakers between speeches, some people danced and musicians took the stand to play songs for all those gathered.
The protest attracted a vast and diverse array of people from many different backgrounds and origins, yet all gathered for a similar cause.
Gaurav Sharma was one of those participating in the entertainment. Originally from India but now residing in Parc-Extension, he is both an activist, artist and former politician.
He recently produced a short play centred around the experience of immigrant workers with the objective of educating people on their rights. He started off the demonstration with a short excerpt of that play.
“I’m doing a street play to inform the people about their rights and I’m also doing social work, spreading masks,” said Sharma, adding “this is my responsibility and my hobby.”
Sharma does not yet have permanent status but want’s to see the government do something about the issue. “We are all demanding equal rights and equal status,” said Sharma.
The federal government has since announced that it would be accelerating pathways to permanent residency for over 90,000 temporary workers in essential jobs and international students.
“Essential workers saved lives in our communities,” said Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, adding that “Canada’s path to prosperity is through immigration.”
That program will therefore make it easier for temporary essential workers from specific sectors to get permanent residency. This will include 20,000 slots for healthcare workers, 30,000 slots for workers in supporting essential occupations and 40,000 slots for recent international graduates.
Although this will make it easier for many people to gain permanent residency, migrants in Quebec will not be eligible because of Quebec’s separate immigration system. Minister Mendicino said that he was nonetheless working closely with Nadine Girault, Québec minister for immigration, to coordinate efforts if Quebec City wanted to do so.
“We are always ready to work together with them, even with regards to this policy. The door remains open if they want to participate,” said Mendicino.