François Legault has apologized for comments he made citing the threat of "extremism" and "violence" as well as the need to preserve Quebec's way of life as reasons to limit the number of immigrants to the province.
"Immigration is a richness for Quebec," the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec tweeted Wednesday late afternoon, hours after he made the statement at an election campaign stop in Victoriaville, Que.
"Integration will always be a challenge for a French-speaking nation in North America. I didn't mean to associate immigration with violence. I am sorry if my comments caused confusion. My desire is to unite."
By the time Legault sent the tweet to apologize at 5:44 p.m., his comments had drawn criticism from other party leaders vying for the premiership and were beginning to overshadow other election campaign news of the day.
When he said them, Legault had been asked why he was so adamant about keeping Quebec's immigration levels lower than 50,000, despite the province's serious labour shortage.
"Quebecers are peaceful," he'd said. "They don't like conflict and extremism, and violence. And we have to make sure to keep things the way they are now."
Legault also repeated an argument he and other CAQ candidates have often used to defend the party stance, saying Quebec struggles to integrate newcomers, and that it wasn't alone in among provinces and jurisdictions around the world having that challenge.
He did not explain what he meant by integration or how immigrants in the province were having difficulty doing it — but said it was harder in Quebec because of its francophone status on a mostly English-speaking continent.
"It presents a big challenge of integration [as far as] the type of society we want. After all, in our society, we have [certain] values," Legault said, pointing to secularism and "respect" as examples.
"There is way of living here and we want to keep it."
On Thursday, the CAQ leader expanded on his apology during another appearance on the campaign trail. He said he was wrong to single out specific values as belonging to Quebec society and that doing so could sow confusion.
"I was answering questions and I answered questions pertaining to values and that's a delicate topic that I should avoid," he said.
During the campaign, competing parties have established different immigration targets. Legault has said a limit of about 50,000 newcomers per year would help protect the French language.
The Parti Québécois has promised to slash the number of newly arrived immigrants to 35,000. Only Québec Solidaire and the Quebec Liberals are committed to welcoming more than 50,000 newcomers.
Quebec's immigration levels have been set at between 40,000 and 50,000 annually in recent years, but the province has said it would welcome nearly 70,000 immigrants in 2022 to make up for shortfalls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal Liberal government, meanwhile, wants to bring in 450,000 immigrants annually across the country.
Business groups have called for more immigrants to help address the labour shortage.
Comments divisive and 'dangerous,' Quebec Liberal leader says
Legault's comments swiftly drew criticism from members of other parties, including Dominique Anglade, the leader of the Quebec Liberals.
Anglade called Legault's comments "dangerous," and said the last thing the province needs is people who stoke division.
"François Legault never ceases to divide Quebecers," she said.
Stéphanie Valois, the president of the province's association of immigration lawyers, said people who choose to come to Quebec and other provinces do so because they want to participate in the Quebec and Canadian way of life.
"I don't see any immigration that would bring violence or any conflicts. This is really not the immigration I know about," Valois said.
"I think we all need to remember that immigration is an important issue for our society for sure. In our society we're already composed of a vast majority of immigrants, whether it be first, second or third generation."
Quebec Conservative Party Leader Éric Duhaime and Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon had also condemned the comments. The Conservative party candidate for Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Louise Poudrier, is set to appear on the Youtube show of André Pitre, who has shared racist conspiracy theories, this evening.