As Quebec takes measures to accommodate a surge of asylum seekers crossing into the province, a right-leaning opposition party warned the border could become a "sieve" and called for the government to reconsider what it calls a "completely irresponsible" response to the influx.
"Canada is compelled to handle asylum claims, and Quebec is obliged to handle it," said Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault in a Facebook post.
While he said that Quebec and Canada have a duty to accept their share of refugees in the face of a crisis, Legault is concerned about what he calls an "out-of-hand influx of illegal migrants" flooding into Quebec from the United States.
"For all potential migrants, this Liberal discourse is the equivalent of an invitation to stampede toward the Quebec border without going through customs," said Legault.
Legault also said that province's "resources are limited, just like our capacity to integrate immigrants into the francophone majority."
Over the last few weeks, authorities have struggled to handle a growing number of people coming into Quebec through unofficial crossings such as Roxham Road, close to the official border crossing at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle.
In the past two weeks, the number of asylum seekers has jumped from about 50 a day to 200 at that crossing, and by Wednesday, 700 people were waiting to be processed. The province has to find accommodations for them all.
While the Parti Québécois, the Official Opposition, has also questioned the province's capacity to deal with the influx, the right-leaning CAQ is the first Quebec political party to call for stricter rules and tightened border control.
The CAQ has taken a strong stance on immigration, culture and identity in the past, but this hardline approach to asylum seekers comes as the party's popularity continues to mount across Quebec in recent months.
Premier Philippe Couillard accused Legault of fear-mongering by "trying to stir up concerns" among Quebecers over immigration and refugee issues.
"Quebec is a mature society and is giving the necessary resources to face this situation in a proper and dignified matter," said Couillard. He called Legault's stance "a sheer lack of leadership."
Potential backlash from Quebecers?
Legault said that Quebecers' tolerance toward refugees is waning as asylum seekers head to the border in droves.
"The attitude of generosity and solidarity on behalf of Quebecers toward refugees is shaken," he said. "And if political officials don't change their attitude, we can expect a backlash."
Refugees who make a claim through the legal route are also frustrated and feel mistreated, since they wait a long time to be able to immigrate to Canada, Legault said.
"A number of Quebecers — for example, such as those who wait hours at the border to enter their own country — are shocked to see that migrants are entering in large numbers, by flouting the law, as if there is no border," he said.
Legault failed to mention that asylum seekers who illegally enter the country are immediately arrested and taken into custody by authorities — there is no guarantee they can stay in Canada.
The hardline stance from Legault has already created its own backlash in Quebec, with some calling for him to provide solutions to help the hundreds of migrants fleeing the United States.
"A leader, in my opinion, doesn't just have the right to give his opinion but also has the obligation to make propositions and provide solutions to a given issue," said Charles Madet, the president of the Association haïtienne de Québec.
Paul Clarke, executive director of Actions Réfugiés Montréal, questioned Legault's claim that the province doesn't have the resources to handle the influx.
"Quebec just announced a surplus of $2.5 billion … we have a very low unemployment rate compared to what it's been in the past, so I would argue Quebec has the resources to show compassion," he said.
Contrary to Legault's claim that Quebecers are running out of patience for asylum seekers, Clarke said his organization is hearing from total strangers who want to assist asylum seekers.
"We're getting phone calls out of the blue — people offering us clothes, people offering to volunteer," he said. "For whatever reason, people are taking the time to find our phone number and call us purely out of motivation to help people."
No sanctuary city?
A mayoral candidate in Quebec City's autumn municipal race has also come forward with concerns similar to the CAQ's about accommodating and accepting migrants.
While several temporary shelters have been opened in Montreal to deal with the surge of migrants crossing illegally into Canada, Québec 21 Leader Jean-François Gosselin said he won't allow his own city to become a sanctuary city if he is elected to office.
"The crisis that Montreal is currently experiencing cannot be repeated here," he said.
Montreal became part of the sanctuary city movement, which aims to provide undocumented people with provisions and protection, in February.