MONTREAL – The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) lost a vote on a motion presented by the opposition Wednesday evening to cancel the government’s reform to a fast-track immigration policy for graduates.

Only three of the party’s members were present at the National Assembly at the time of the vote.

The rest of the team, including Premier François Legault, was at a fundraiser to support the party's candidate in the upcoming Jean-Talon riding byelection, according to opposition parties.

“The whip didn’t know that we have to have five MNAs to ask to [delay the vote],” the premier said Thursday, adding that the vote doesn't change a thing.

“I would like to have a vote today, unfortunately it’s too late, and you’ll see 75 people vote against this motion.”

As it stands, the CAQ has 75 seats at the National Assembly, giving it a comfortable majority. The Quebec Liberals have 28; Quebec Solidaire has 10; the Parti Québécois has nine, there are two independent seats and one vacant position.

“The motion to maintain the Quebec experience program (PEQ) was adopted at the National Assembly,” tweeted Dominique Anglade, the Quebec Liberal Party’s opposition critic for the economy.

“The number of CAQ MNAs was less than the opposition.”

The motion isn’t binding; however, opposition parties are calling it “excellent news” and insist the government has a moral obligation to reconsider its reform.

"There were more members of the CAQ at a 'CAQ-tail' at Jean-Talon and they were supposed to be here," said Pascal Bérubé, Parti Québécois (PQ) leader.

"It's a matter of how the CAQ organized itself and we feel sorry for them. It was, in a way, a good thing, but a lot of members of the CAQ were not comfortable with this issue -- and they told us."

Bérubé wouldn't reveal which MNAs he claims to have spoken to, but he noted that every Tuesday, the parties are made aware of the topic of the weekly "Wednesday motions," so it's impossible that the CAQ was unaware of the vote.

An about-face by the CAQ

The Quebec government backtracked Wednesday on its decision to restrict access to the immigration program, saying students already in the province may still apply under the previous criteria.

The about-face came after tearful testimony from several international students the day prior, as well as claims from opposition parties that the reform was cruel.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, who didn't meet with the students, says their words led him to change his mind.

While those currently in the program will be spared, the new restrictive rules will apply to future participants as the province attempts to address labour shortages by targeting specific fields where workers are needed.

Under the new rules, only seven doctoral, 24 master's, 54 bachelor's and 59 college-degree programs will be admitted to the PEQ.

The list of professions allowed will change every year, the government states. In 2018, 11,000 people were admitted to the program in the province.

The CAQ insists the reform will be put in place as of Nov. 1.