MONTREAL — Quebec's capacity to accept immigrants is limited by its need to protect the French language, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault said Monday after facing criticism on the issue from federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.
Rodriguez waded into the Quebec election campaign after Legault on Sunday described non-French-speaking immigration to the province as a threat to "national cohesion."
Rodriguez told reporters Monday that Legault needs to stop dividing Quebecers into "us and them," and wondered what the premier would make of his own family, who came to the province without any knowledge of French.
"It's the first time that I'm considered as a threat. I didn't speak French when I came to Canada. I was eight years old. I didn't speak a word of French or English," the minister, whose family immigrated from Argentina, told reporters outside a federal Liberal caucus meeting in St. Andrews, N.B. "Are my parents a threat? They didn't speak French when they came in."
Rodriguez said his parents both went on to become professors at the French-language Université de Sherbrooke.
"I think we have to stop talking about us and them. The second a person comes to Quebec, devotes his life to Quebec, raises his kids in Quebec, that person is a Quebecer," Rodriguez said.
Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade described Legault's comments as "pathetic" and accused him of deliberately trying to turn people against each other.
"It appeals to the basest instincts. It nourishes the fear of others," she told reporters in Laval, Que.
Anglade said the comments make her think of her parents, who immigrated from Haiti. "Every time I hear François Legault saying these things, it really gets to me, because it's a lack of understanding of how Quebec was built," she said, adding that immigrants from around the world contributed to building the province.
"Inclusion is a choice and is the choice that Liberal party of Quebec is making. François Legault wants to exclude. We'll never build a strong Quebec with that approach, never."
However, Anglade said the province needs to do more to ensure that immigrants are able to successfully integrate and speak French.
Responding to Anglade's comments, Legault said the Liberal leader is "always negative and Quebecers don't like that." Immigration benefits Quebec, Legault said, but the province's capacity to accept immigrants is limited if it wants to protect the French language.
One reason Quebecers followed COVID-19 measures more than people elsewhere was because of Quebec's "national cohesion," Legault said, describing the province as a "tight-knit" nation where people share "certain values."
"To have national cohesion, you have to have a nation, a strong nation. For the Quebec nation to be strong, we have to protect French," he told reporters in St-Lazare, Que.
Jean-François Daoust, a political science professor at the Université de Sherbrooke, said it is widely accepted in Quebec that social cohesion in Quebec relies not just on democratic values, but also on agreement that French should be the common language.
He said he's not sure Legault's latest comments, made at a campaign rally, were part of a calculated strategy. "I just think he wanted to clarify previous clumsy declarations that he made regarding immigration," Daoust said, referring to Legault's remarks last week seen as linking immigration with violence and extremism.
Daoust said he doubts Rodriguez's comments will have much impact but he was surprised to see him enter the fray. "I don't see how this can help, for example, the Liberal party of Quebec," he said.
Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon called on both Legault and Anglade to elevate the level of debate.
"It's easy to make headlines by calling your opponents 'pathetic,' or to grab all the media attention by talking about threats, fear or by associating immigration with violence," he told reporters while campaigning. "It's too easy. I don't think it's the kind of campaign Quebecers want to see."
Legault, who was campaigning in the suburbs of Montreal, also took a moment to speak about the "unhealthy" tone of the campaign — responding to a protest outside the home of one of his candidates. Legault called on party leaders to make an appeal for calm and to denounce acts of intimidation.
"It's normal, especially in an election campaign, that there will be debates, disagreements, but there are boundaries that have been crossed," he said. Legault said CAQ candidate Éric Lefebvre and his family feared for their safety after a noisy convoy-style protest circled the cul-de-sac where he lives.
"Scaring a child has nothing to do with freedom," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 12, 2022.
— With files from Mia Rabson, Jocelyne Richer and Frédéric Lacroix-Couture.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press