Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault is turning to a longtime friend and CAQ supporter to fend off what some see as a key party weakness.
Legault kicked off his caucus retreat Monday by introducing Dr. Lionel Carmant, who would be a shoo-in as Legault's choice for health minister.
The pediatric neurologist at Ste-Justine Hospital is also Haitian-born, having moved to Quebec at the age of four, checking off some crucial boxes in the CAQ's search for candidates.
Radio-Canada has reported that Carmant will run. Legault wouldn't confirm that Monday, but he nonetheless made it clear that Carmant is an important "get" for the CAQ.
"He has one of the best international reputations as a doctor," Legault said.
Attracting Montreal voters a must for CAQ
While several polls last fall show the CAQ in the lead, positioned to take power, the party's 21-member caucus is all-white, francophone, and frozen out of all 28 of the ridings on the island of Montreal.
In fact, in the 2014 election, the party trailed in the results in the province's most important metropolis.
The CAQ was only able to muster more than 15 per cent of the vote in three Montreal ridings. In most ridings on the island, support for the CAQ ran in the low teens or single digits.
So finding strong candidates who have the potential to draw in Montreal voters will be an indispensable part of the CAQ's long-term plans for gaining power.
However, the CAQ's recent identity-based policies offer little to attract a more diverse base of support, including from anglophones and allophones.
The party has led the way in calling for for more restrictions on the wearing of religious symbols by public servants, and it opposed a proposal to dedicate the day of the Quebec Mosque shooting to the fight against Islamophobia.
Legault agrees with the idea that Montreal businesses should not greet customers by saying "Bonjour-Hi" — all parties in the National Assembly supported the fall motion.
The CAQ is also steadfast in its commitment to abolish English-language school boards.
Carmant agrees immigration rate should be cut
As asylum seekers — most of them originally from Haiti — poured across the U.S.-Quebec border last summer, Legault warned the border risked becoming a "sieve" and said that Quebec already takes in more than its capacity of immigrants.
Carmant stood by those comments Monday, explaining that Legault was concerned many asylum seekers had the false impression that they would all be able to stay.
"I think history has proven him right," he said.
He also said he agrees with a CAQ proposal to cut the immigration rate in order to make the integration process easier.
"When it's done any old way, it's a lot harder, and we create ghettos and unsatisfied people," Carmant said.
Carmant is critical of Liberal health and social policy, calling the effort to introduce low-income children into the province's non-profit daycares a "mitigated success."
He says he is "disappointed" with Liberal Health Minister Gaétan Barrette's health care reforms, although he would not name any part of it that he would undo if he were to take the job.
Other recruits in the wings
Legault says beyond Carmant's potential candidacy, he's adding to the diversity of his team in other ways. He has already recruited candidates of Italian and Romanian descent, he said.
"I would like that the CAQ government be a government for all Quebecers, so I would like that all groups in the government be represented in our team," he said.
Making headway in Montreal is also a key mission for him, he said.
"I've met many potential candidates in the last few weeks, including some that are ready to be candidates on the island of Montreal, and I am very anxious to present those very good candidates."
Whether that will be enough to boost his support in Montreal will become clearer in the months to come.