Immigrant professor in job fight

January 22, 1999

An attempt by a Canadian university to recruit a French-born philosophy professor with an international track record has been thwarted by immigration rules.

Jean-Christophe Merle was selected for a full-time tenure-track professorship at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal last May. But he says political interference meant he was denied permission to work in Canada.

Dr Merle won his appointment by just one vote against three shortlisted Canadians. Dr Merle's credentials include French and German PhDs and a Habilitationsschrift (a type of assistant professorship) from the University of Tubingen.

A month after the decision, one of the unsuccessful candidates sent a lawyer's letter, reminding the university of a section of immigration law that gives qualified Canadians priority over foreign candidates. The university, confident it was not in breach of the law, and after consultation with government and other local universities, offered Dr Merle the job in September.

The decision precipitated a dispute in the philosophy department that in essence pitted one group, which held that qualified candidates must not be passed over for foreign stars, against others who believed the department had the right to choose an excellent candidate, and not one that was merely qualified.

Despite the fracas, the job offer was still on the table and the university applied for a temporary work permit on Dr Merle's behalf. Almost immediately it was forced to send another letter revoking the offer.

Immigration officials who refused to grant the permit said the decision was swayed by the close vote. "If there had been 11 votes for Dr Merle, it would have been easy," said Claude Fradette, a spokesman for Quebec's immigration department. But Mr Fradette, along with another immigration official, said there were obviously qualified nationals for the job.

The university is not appealing against the decision, but Dr Merle and his lawyer are pursuing the matter. Because he had applied for permanent residency before the job was offered to him, a process that was about to be finalised, Dr Merle, under the law, should have been seen as a de facto landed immigrant, putting him on the same level as his fellow Canadian applicants.

"Because the alleged reasons (for not granting me a work permit) are wrong and because the pressures and the lobbying were obvious, I say the decision was a political one," Dr Merle said from Washington DC, where, ironically, he is conducting research on international rights at Georgetown University.

Both the government and university deny the decision to refuse a work permit came from union pressure in a climate in which tenures have steadily declined.

"We have not been told when to hire or how to hire," said vice-rector Louise Dandurand.

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