Opponents question CAQ leader François Legault on his sovereigntist past

The criticism comes as the latest opinion polls show the Coalition Avenir Québec holding the most public support ahead of provincial elections set for October.

'I prefer the term nationalist,' Legault said at the Coalition Avenir Québec's national convention today

The CAQ's newest candidates, Stéphane Le Bouyonnec, right, and Nadine Girault, were announced today. The pair have histories with the PQ and the PLQ, respectively. (Cathy Senay/CBC)

The leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec is being questioned over sovereigntist views he's expressed in the past, as the party​ tries to build on its narrow lead in opinion polls ahead of next fall's provincial election.

François Legault, who is a former Parti Québécois MNA, says he rejects those positions now, and would instead call himself a nationalist.

"I prefer the term nationalist, because federalist is more subject to the status quo," Legault said at the CAQ's national convention, which kicked off today in Lévis, Que.

In the latest polls ahead of provincial elections in October, the party held the most public support, narrowly edging out the governing Quebec Liberals.

The CAQ's confidence is evident and it's trying to maintain that momentum, as 800 people are expected to attend this weekend's event.

Formed in November 2011, the party has also brought on several candidates with past ties to other Quebec political parties in the last two weeks.

The latest additions, Stéphane Le Bouyonnec and Nadine Girault, were announced today. Both candidates have histories with the PQ and the PLQ, respectively.

Svetlana Solomykina will also be running for the CAQ in the Taschereau riding, after she debated, but decided against, joining the PLQ.

Sovereigntist to nationalist?

"A strong Quebec inside a strong Canada" has been the CAQ's slogan for some time now.

However, Legault has a long history with the PQ, serving as an MNA with the party for over 10 years.

He was appointed Minister for Industry and Commerce under Lucien Bouchard's PQ government in 1988, and was later named Minister of Education.

He announced his retirement from politics in June 2009, and started the CAQ two years later, in November 2011.

That has led rival politicians to question his current stance on the issue of Quebec sovereignty.

Speaking at the PQ's national council meeting, which was also held today, party leader Jean-François Lisée said it would be "very risky to have Legault as premier."

Jean-Martin Aussant, a PQ candidate and rising star within the party, said the last time he spoke to Legault, the CAQ leader "was a sovereigntist."

Aussant has been in and out of the PQ himself. He started his own party in 2011, called Option nationale, which merged with Québec Solidaire earlier this year.

​Marc Laviolette, the former head of the province's federation of trade unions and a member of the PQ, said he believes Legault is an opportunist. 

Speaking at the PQ's national council meeting today, party leader Jean-François Lisée said it would be "very risky to have Legault as premier." (Radio-Canada)

"He wants to be the head of something. He wants to be the premier," Laviolette said. "He's ready to say whatever he needs to get elected." 

For his part, Quebec Premier and PLQ leader Philippe Couillard said Wednesday that he doubts Legault is a true federalist. 

He said Legault has not shown a real commitment to the country.

"[Legault] tolerates Canada, nothing more," Couillard said. 

Legault would axe Pink Line project

Another contentious point made at the CAQ convention Saturday was Legault's assertion that if elected premier, he would axe the Pink Line project in Montreal.

A north-south Metro line that would run through the city's core, the Pink Line has the backing of Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who pitched it during her mayoral campaign last fall.

Legault said he doesn't believe there would be enough ridership to make the line worth it.

Soon after, Plante took to Twitter, defending the project in a thread of six tweets. 

"Notwithstanding the position the CAQ announced this morning, we will continue to advance the Pink Line project, which is currently the only solution to Montreal public transit's saturation issues," she wrote.

With files from CBC's Cathy Senay and Presse Canadienne