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Some Ukrainians in Quebec struggle with French requirement for immigration

February 26, 2024
The Canadian Press

Inna Gonchukova, shown in this handout image, is a displaced Ukrainian who came to Canada after fleeing the war with Russia in 2022. Some Ukrainians living in Quebec after fleeing the war with Russia are unsure if they'll be able to meet the language requirements for permanent immigration to the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

Inna Gonchukova never expected to live in Canada. But almost two years after fleeing war-torn Ukraine, she says she has mostly settled into life in Granby, Que., about 65 kilometres east of Montreal, though she longs to one day return to her home country and reunite with her husband who stayed behind.

“My husband has his war and I have my own war here because I need to give to my kids (the) best future,” Gonchukova said in a phone interview Saturday.

For now, however, she says that future is uncertain. She is considering staying in Quebec and even took French classes, but she doesn’t know if she will have time to further develop her language skills and prepare for the exam she would have to take to demonstrate French proficiency, a requirement for many of the province’s immigration programs.

“It’s not so easy,” she said. “You need to prepare and you need to have time. As a single mom of two kids and I work a lot, difficult to prepare, difficult to find the time.”

Gonchukova is among the displaced Ukrainians in Quebec who are unsure they would be able to meet the French requirement. Like many Ukrainians, she came to Canada through a federal program that allows her to stay and work in the country for three years, called the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel.

Beneficiaries have until the end of March to apply to extend their status, but immigration lawyer Nataliya Dzera says that even with an extension it will be difficult for some members of the community to attain French proficiency.

Dzera works with displaced Ukrainians and says many came to Quebec with some or no French skills because they never thought they would live in the province. But two years later, French has become key for some seeking a more permanent home in what was once a temporary refuge.

“But it’s not going to be easy and far from everybody will be able to do that,” Dzera said of Ukrainians trying to learn French while supporting their families and meeting other work requirements.

An update to Quebec’s immigration policy last year made French skills mandatory for both of the province’s major immigration programs for skilled workers, Dzera said. The province also eliminated an avenue for some people to immigrate without passing a French exam, she explained.

Other immigration streams, such as humanitarian and family reunification programs, are more limited in scope and likely unavailable to many Ukrainians, she explained.

Gonchukova says she may seek employer sponsorship, or even return to Europe and apply for permanent residence from outside Canada.

Tetiana Iriohlu is another displaced Ukrainian who says her life was turned upside down when the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022. She and her two daughters eventually settled just outside Montreal in Longueuil, Que. and hope to stay, she said Saturday.

Iriohlu also took French courses and plans to apply for permanent residence. She says she has already passed an oral expression section of the requisite French test and is studying for a second exam on oral comprehension.

She is confident she will succeed and says she has benefited from a supportive community of both Ukrainians and Quebecers. Others don’t have that privilege, she said.

“A lot of the single mothers who came with children knew neither English nor French,” she said.  “And they take low-skilled jobs, which severely limits their ability to apply for permanent residence, and they still have to learn French.”

“This mission is extremely difficult,” she said.

In a statement, Quebec’s Immigration, Francisation and Integration Department said it has no plans to relax immigration requirements to accommodate displaced Ukrainians. The department pointed to the availability of free French courses in the province with financial aid of up to $230 per week for qualifying immigrants in full-time courses and $28 per day for those in part-time courses.

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