MONTREAL – Quebec is backtracking on its decision to restrict access to a fast-track immigration program meant for new graduates, saying students already in the province may still apply under the previous criteria.

After teary pleas at the National Assembly from some students the day prior, as well as calls from opposition parties for the Legault government to revisit its decision, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette announced Wednesday he would allow students already enrolled in the program to complete it under the old rules.

Jolin-Barrette, who didn't meet with the students, says their testimonials at a news conference inside the legislature led him to change his mind.

"I think I'm really sensitive to that because I heard them yesterday and this morning .... I made some changes about the reforms to answer their questions and their preoccupations," Jolin-Barrette told reporters.

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

Legault said Wednesday that he was touched by the students' response to the reform.

"We may not have properly evaluated the more human aspect [of the reform]," he admitted.

"I didn't like my day," Legault told reporters Wednesday morning. "When I spoke to my wife last night, she saw very well I had not liked my day. She understood it wasn't my best day."

He says his goal is to create wealth in the province, and that means being "careful" about who is allowed to immigrate to Quebec. Legault insists he wants young people to study pure science, "because that's where innovation is, that's where the future is."

"In some fields, if people want to go to other provinces, that's fine," Legault argued. "But I don't want to miss one engineer. I want to have as many engineers as I can in Quebec."

‘Cold and calculated’

Some Quebec politicians say they were surprised at the government’s “insensitivity.”

“When someone takes the risk of moving abroad and they follow the rules, and within the process, the rules are changed, this is something we should be ashamed of,” said Gaetan Barrette, a Quebec Liberal MNA.

“We are one of the only societies in today's world where having too much talent is something negative.”

He pointed out Quebecers don't deserve this kind of government.

“You saw a premier and his minister who were both totally insensitive to what those people are living today,” Barrette said. “They are cold. It's about calculation.”

Parti Québécois (PQ) Leader Pascal Bérubé says he understands why some students were in tears after hearing about the change in the program.

 “They [the CAQ] changed the rules in the middle of the game,” he said. “Now, they're saying, ‘OK, stop crying, you win. We don't think it's a good idea, but you're crying and we see your face on TV.'”

Pierre Arcand, interim leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, argues the government should revisit its entire decision to reform the program.

“Even if this is a victory on the part of the students, we think the issue is far from being settled,” he said.

“If you are a student or a qualified worker and you really want to come to Quebec, do you think it's very motivating when the government can change the rules?”

‘Cruel and insensitive’

Tuesday, Jolin-Barrette was called cruel and insensitive for proposing changes to the popular program after hundreds of international students learned they may be forced to leave the province due to changes to the Quebec experience program (PEQ).

Jolin-Barrette had insisted that the program only be open to graduates seeking work in industries the government says are facing labour shortages.

"All the diplomas in social sciences, arts, culture have been evacuated from the program,” argued Quebec Solidaire MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.

 “That's an ideological choice that's a business-like way to see immigration. It's a very narrow-minded way to see immigration to Quebec society."

Under the new rules, only seven doctoral, 24 master's, 54 bachelor's and 59 college-degree programs will be admitted to the PEQ. In 2018, 11,000 people were admitted to the program in the province.

The list of professions allowed will change every year, the government states.

“It's like a moving target -- maybe next year, maybe next year?” Bérubé said. “Wait and see, come to Quebec and maybe next year it's going to be something else. You'll end up working at McDonald’s or another job, not the one you want -- because we say so. This is the kind of government we have right now.”

The students rallied Tuesday, saying the government's actions are inhumane and a betrayal to those who travelled to Quebec, paid school fees and started lives in the province with the expectation they would have access to the program.

"I think some of the students who are here like me already have a family," said student Jin Xing, who moved to Quebec three years from China.

"We left so many things in our original country. It is not simple for us. ... We have a big dream out here. We love this country and we are working so hard."

The reform is expected to be put in place as of Nov. 1.