MONTREAL — Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault found himself on the defensive Thursday, trying to clarify comments made a day earlier that linked immigration to the province with extremism and violence.
On Day 12 of the election campaign, Legault was peppered by questions from journalists about whether he was friends with any immigrants or whether he feared newcomers.
"Not at all," Legault said when asked whether immigrants scare him, "… we have many candidates who are immigrants."
A day earlier, Legault discussed what he described as the "challenges of integration" and repeated his policy that he wouldn't increase immigration to Quebec beyond 50,000 people a year. "Quebecers are peaceful," he said, "they don't like bickering, they don't like extremists, they don't like violence. We have to ensure that we keep it the way it is right now."
Late Thursday, Legault said immigration was a source of wealth to Quebec and that he never meant to tie immigrants to violence.
But his clarification wasn't good enough for Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, who told reporters in Laval, Que., that the premier revealed what's in the bottom of his heart regarding immigrants. Anglade, a former member of the CAQ, said she left the party years ago because of its stance on immigration, adding that Legault hasn't evolved on the issue.
“The first thing a premier must do is elevate the debate — that’s clearly not what François Legault did yesterday," Anglade told reporters. "I deplore it and I find that it’s dangerous. Our responsibility is to bring Quebecers together."
Legault has often been accused by his opponents of suggesting immigrants are a threat. Earlier this year, he said that Quebec risks losing its language and culture if the province doesn’t have more control over immigration. The premier even warned that Quebec could become like the state of Louisiana — formerly under the control of France — where only a fraction of the population still speaks French.
Meanwhile, Québec solidaire spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said Legault underestimates the impact of tying immigration to violence.
"Immigration isn't just a debate about statistics, it's people, and when we debate or we talk about them all wrong, it has an impact on their daily lives, and I don't think François Legault is conscious of that," Nadeau-Dubois said in Sherbrooke, Que.
Asked if immigration could become a ballot question, Legault said it's an important issue for the long-term preservation of French in the province, noting that the Liberals and Québec solidaire have both proposed increasing immigration levels.
"It's a question, I think, that is very important to many francophones in Quebec," Legault said, after making an announcement about helicopter service for patients in regions who require transport for urgent and specialized medical care.
Also Thursday, the Liberals promised that if elected they would introduce free lunchtime care for elementary school students.
Québec solidaire's Nadeau-Dubois was in Sherbrooke, where his party's incumbent is in a tight race with the CAQ. He promised to build 25,000 social housing units in the province during a first term if elected.
Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon campaigned on measures to better balance powers in the legislature between backbench members and the premier's office.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2022.
— With files from Caroline Plante and Patrice Bergeron.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press