MONTREAL -- On Monday, Quebec Premier François Legault made an announcement that took many by surprise. At a press conference, he said the province may consider after all whether some asylum seekers could immigrate to Canada if they’d been working on the COVID-19 front lines.

Legault had been steadfast over the last few weeks on this point, saying the rules could not be changed. 

But now that he’s suggested such an unusual exception could be made, everyone involved is trying to understand how it could be done fairly, from the federal government to people in Montreal’s Haitian community. 

“When we know there is going to be an analysis conducted on a case-by-case basis, any citizen should know what are the criteria and what are the results,” Fabrice Vil, a Montreal social entrepreneur, told CTV News.

Refugee claims fall under Ottawa’s jurisdiction, not Quebec’s, though Quebec has more control over its immigration system than most provinces. 

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa was trying to look into Legault’s idea.

“It’s very important, in all issues… to do things properly and carefully,” she said, especially when it comes to immigration.

The people in question are a relatively small group from the tens of thousands who walked over the border into Quebec at Roxham Road in the last three years, many of them Haitian.

About 1,000 ended up working as orderlies in long-term care homes, estimates Marjorie Villefrance, the director of the Maison d’Haiti community centre in Montreal North.

These orderlies have been working in risky, difficult jobs during the pandemic, and many have themselves been infected. Many advocates have called on Legault to allow them to stay in Quebec as a thank-you for their work, and some even staged a protest this weekend at Prime Minister Trudeau's constituency office in Montreal.

Immigrating as a worker is a much more surefire way to be able to live permanently in Canada than pursuing a refugee claim. Asylum claimants can spend years awaiting their hearings, and then potentially subsequent appeals, though they can still be rejected at the end. 

Legault’s suggestion seemed to be that this group of health-care workers could be allowed to switch “streams,” from the asylum process to the immigration process, which offers a clear set of steps forward.

“What we are asking is to normalize their situation because it is not a living, to live with a working permit, with no other rights,” said Villefranche. “You don’t even have the rights to reunite your family with you.”

Legault had said he rejected the idea of giving any kind of preference to the asylum seekers. But at his press conference on Monday, he acknowledged the requests to give them some kind of thank-you.

And his government has spent the past few days focusing on severe staffing shortages in health care. Authorities announced Friday they would increase medical school spots in Quebec. This week, the province said it would try to fix the long-term care home shortages, particularly among orderlies, by the fall.

The asylum seekers in question “were already working in CHSLDs, so how can we bring them via the normal immigration process?” Legault asked on Monday.

Also this week, on Sunday, advocate Fabrice Vil appeared on the widely watched French-language television talk show “Tout le Monde en Parle.”

Legault has said only that he has asked Quebec immigration minister Simon Jolin-Barrette to examine the refugee claimants’ files on a case-by-case basis.

Some in the Haitian community, aside from Vil, asked for a wider and more transparent process.

“We need to see a more candid approach, an approach which is not going to exclude all the other vicims,” said Jerry Alexandre of the group Stand for Dignity.

A provincial spokesperson said it’s too early to give specifics and pointed to Ottawa for more information.

Freeland said that federal immigration minister Marco Mendicino “is looking into this issue.”