After years in opposition, François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec is well-positioned heading into the election next fall.

The latest opinion poll, released Saturday by Léger for Le Devoir, had the CAQ in top spot, four percentage points ahead of the Liberals, and far ahead among francophones, a crucial voting block. 

In conversation with Daybreak host Mike Finnerty on Wednesday, he explained why he wants to temporarily curb immigration, boost the birth rate among Quebecers and encourage shop clerks to say "bonjour" rather than "bonjour/hi."

Here's the full interview, edited for length and clarity.


Mike Finnerty: Are you leading the polls because voters like you and your party, or because they are sick and tired of the Liberals and Parti Québécois?

François Legault: I think it's both. I think that yes, after 15 years of Liberal governments, Quebec needs change to replace a worn-out government. But also they are happy about the measures we propose to put more money in families' wallets.

MF: One of those measures has to do with persuading women to have more babies. It's taken a little fire since you announced it.

FL: The objective is to help families. It's not to convince women to have more babies. We need to help families. In the past 15 years, we've seen income taxes go up. Very often when you speak with parents they tell you that, at the end of the month, it's tough to pay all the bills.  And if, by the way, we can convince some to have one, two, three babies, it's good for our economy. You know that we have a challenge in our demography, but the main goal is really to help families.

MF: But your goal is to ease off immigration, and so, if we do that, presumably the slack has to be taken up with people from somewhere else, no?

FL: I want to be very clear. The CAQ is for immigration, but right now we have to do a better job.  Because after 15 years, the unemployment rate for immigrants is 15 per cent, three times the average in Quebec. And also, we learned this week that every year we lose 7,000 people to other provinces, so we really need to do better, to recognize diplomas, experience and help them find a job. That's why we say that for a few years, only for a few years, we should go back to 40,000 immigrants [from the current 50,000].

MF: Why are we doing such a poor job of getting immigrants into the workforce?

FL: I think we've put too much emphasis into knowing French. That's why at the CAQ, we say we should give three years to pass a French test. The first and maybe only criteria must be qualification, and answering the needs of the working market. The second reason is we need to deal with professional orders, including those of doctors and engineers. They are not fair with immigrations. We have to be more involved to help employers accept immigrants, accept their skills.

MF: There was a study that showed people with the exact same CV, but one had a francophone Quebec name and the other a non-French sounding name. The francophones were 60 per cent more likely to get a job. Do you think that played a role in things?

FL: I saw that and I think it's true. There must be help from Emploi-Québec and we have to convince companies not to do so. We have to provide concrete help to those companies and change their way of thinking because what's important is really people's qualifications.

MF: What it suggests, though, is that there's some kind of system in place that doesn't allow for people to get a job when they are from minority groups. A lot of time at the National Assembly was spent attacking the government for holding a consultation on systemic racism. Why were you a part of that?

FL: First, I wouldn't call it a system. A system is something that is used by everybody. I still think that it's a minority of companies doing that, but it's too much. 

MF: Why not have a forum where you can hear people who are actually at the receiving end of whatever form racism takes, and listen to them with an open mind?

FL: I'm a pragmatic guy. Honestly, people who know me, I don't like forums and committees. I like action. So it's about time that, yes, we put money in, and make sure we reach companies doing that and we convince companies to change their ways.

MF: But how do you take action properly when you haven't taken the time to really listen to people about their own lived experiences?

FL: We know that it's happening. We know that some of the employers are racist. We need to take action against them. We don't need to have weeks and months of discussion. I think the real target of Mr. Couillard is to do some small politics with this kind of forum. Mr. Couillard is in power for three years. It's time for action. 

MF: Speaking of small politics, can you explain why you and your MNAs voted in favour of a resolution urging shop keepers to say "bonjour"?

FL: If we want to protect French and still speak French 50 years from now, we have to take those small actions. And everybody agreed with that at the National Assembly, including the Liberals. 

MF: Is it really so awful to hear one two-letter word, "hi," from a shop clerk, just telling you can choose to speak English or French to them?

FL: I think the English community is well-treated in Quebec. They have their schools, hospitals, they can talk in English with the Quebec government, but we need to make sure that the image of Montreal is [protected].

MF: Is it really so awful to hear "bonjour," but also, "hi?"

FL: It starts with that and eventually you speak only in English.

MF: Really?

FL: French will always be vulnerable in North America. We will always be vulnerable and have to take some action. 

MF: Is it safe for anglophones to vote for the CAQ? 

FL: I think the main point is that last year, at our party congress, we made it clear that the CAQ will govern within Canada. We will never hold a referendum on sovereignty. What I want to do for the next 20 years is to be as rich as Ontario and the rest of Canada.