On October 28, students gathered inside the Faculty of Law Building to discuss their experiences as immigrants and refugees in Montreal. The event, titled the “Refugee Parliament” (RP), was first conceived in the fall of 2022 by Alessia Mottet, Maria Radu, Saadet Serra, and Shona Moreau as a course project for SWRK 400 (Policy and Practice for Refugees). In an interview with the Daily, Moreau, a fourth-year law student at McGill, described how the project was inspired by the xenophobic discourse in Quebec politics at the time and the lack of formal refugee involvement in developing laws and policies regarding them. “We [were] hearing a lot from Quebec politicians [about refugee issues], and a bit from some refugee organizations or organizations that serve immigrants. We [weren’t] hearing a lot about people who were actually affected by [this rhetoric],” Moreau told the Daily. The RP was modeled around Quebec’s National Assembly. However, RP’s proposal writes that currently, only one committee in the Assembly, the Committee on Citizen Relations, is occasionally tasked with studying issues regarding refugees and immigration policy is the Committee on Citizen Relations. The RP was thus made with the aim of creating a ground for refugees to speak out and occupy public space, and ultimately for policy-makers and politicians to solicit feedback from the body when seeking proposals for future refugee policies.
The first RP focused on the needs of refugee and immigrant youth in Montreal, with around f40 representatives from various backgrounds in attendance. “Even though we called it ‘Refugee Parliament,’ ‘refugee’ is a loaded word legally,” Moreau told the Daily. “Asylum seekers, displaced people, migrants can all have that refugee experience as we imagine it,” she added. In recruiting participants, her team understood that “you [didn’t] need to have a specific legal UNHCR refugee status to be able to participate [in the RP].” While some participants were second-generation refugee claimants, others were first-generation immigrants or refugees, which brought diverse perspectives to the table.
One of the topics covered in the RP was the issue of the French language, a highly relevant discussion amidst Premier Legault’s agenda to reverse the decline of French in Quebec. Earlier this month, the Legault government tabled an immigration plan that would require thousands of temporary workers to pass an oral French exam when they apply to renew three-year-work permits. Under this tentative plan, if temporary workers fail the Level Four exam, which requires conversational French, they cannot remain in the province. In a November 1 news conference, Legault reiterated the goals of this plan: “The message will be very clear, as much for students as workers… In the future, if you want to come to Quebec for more than three years, if you want to stay as a permanent immigrant, you will have to speak French.” This would further expand the Legault government’s direct emphasis on migrants in its efforts to promote francization. In a February 2022 letter obtained by Radio Canada, Legault stated that “[t]he massive arrival of tens of thousands of migrants in the Quebec metropolis, a significant proportion of whom do not speak French, greatly complicates our francization goals.”
Passed in May 2022, Bill 96 currently requires newly arrived immigrants to learn French within a six-month grace period for “particular situations” including getting health care and instances of public safety. After that period, the government begins communicating with immigrants in French in an effort to foster integration into the province, with no exceptions made for refugees and asylum seekers. In regards to francization policies like Bill 86, Alina Murad, a representative from the Refugee Centre, an organization that works to support the integration and unification of refugee and immigrant communities in Montreal, told the Daily that “at the Refugee Centre we see the client demographic we receive shift as policies change.” Murad expressed the need for increased opportunities for newcomers to learn French — “the government needs to acknowledge the arduous process that is seeking refuge, and as such there should be more opportunities to provide language classes for newcomers.” At the RP, representatives discussed how the government’s goals of retaining Quebec’s culture and language could be better translated into a more welcoming and accessible, rather than exclusionary, policies.
The Quebec Government’s plan to raise tuition for non-Quebec and non-Canadian students at anglophone universities, combined with its ongoing anti-migrant rhetoric, directly affects McGill refugee and immigrant students. According to Nika, a U0 student originally from Russia and a participant in the RP the disregard for the immigrant and refugee community of Quebec in an attempt to preserve the French language is misguided. At the RP, she and her peers echoed the need for accessible resources to learn French and integrate into the Quebec community. “I came here [from Vancouver] specifically to learn French – that was a big motivator to me choosing McGill,” she told the Daily. “When I got here, I was caught off guard by the lack of resources for students who are willing to learn and who really wanted to, and also [felt] the government’s pressure to learn.”
Noting the lack of resources for new students to integrate into the community of both McGill and Montreal, another focus of the RP was the need to build community spaces for immigrants and refugees. “One huge part of the Refugee Parliament that we found was that [many participants] were interested in finding people like [themselves],” Moreau told the Daily. “Making the city feel more comfortable” through events like walking tours (which have been done by organizations like WUSC McGill and the Refugee Centre), and building up events and spaces for sharing experiences and information about McGill and Montreal, were some of the solutions brought up in the Parliament. Through attending these events, “you could meet that group, that support system, or even that one person that you connect with for the support you need,” Moreau added. Thus, the calls to action constructed by RP representatives at the conclusion of the first RP highlighted building up organizations that provide resources for immigrants and refugees, as well as community spaces for learning French. Another aim was to distribute pamphlets containing information for recent immigrants and broadening the reach of existing refugee organizations’ resources.
Moreau hopes this event will kickstart a broader movement, pushing McGill to give more importance to refugee and immigrant experiences in decision-making and urging the provincial government for increased funding and support. Though the first RP’s focus was on the experience of refugee and immigrant youth, the team aspires to eventually expand its reach to the broader immigrant and refugee community of Montreal in future events. The first event was really “…a start of a conversation,” Moreau told the Daily. “ I think the participants were very aware that…where we’re at right now is smaller-scale, it’s not representative of everyone — in terms of impact, we’re not relying on changing anything [huge] yet.” What the event succeeded in doing, however, was “changing hearts and minds, putting [their needs] on people’s radars” — whether it is giving ideas to organizations already working in the refugee space or to McGill administration — giving refugee and immigrant students a place to gather and speak about their experiences with the hopes of one day being heard.