Jean-François Lisée hardens tone on immigration, sovereignty ahead of leadership review

Facing a critical leadership review on Saturday, Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée has unveiled a number of hardline positions that appear designed to consolidate his support with his party's sovereignist base.

PQ members vote Saturday on whether they approve of new leader's performance so far

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée said an independent Quebec would take a harder line with asylum seekers. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Facing a critical leadership review this weekend, Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée has unveiled a number of hardline positions that appear designed to consolidate his support with his party's sovereignist base. 

Lisée said a PQ government would curtail funding for English CEGEPS, ending their "open bar" access to government funds. He also promised that an independent Quebec would impose tougher border controls.

In Canada, he said, asylum seekers "have the same rights as citizens as soon as they set foot in the country."

"By being independent, Quebec will have its borders respected," Lisée added. "Asylum seekers will go through the normal border crossings."

​The PQ leader was referring to the large number of asylum seekers who have been crossing into Quebec from the U.S. not at official ports of entry in recent months. 

The number of illegal crossings jumped suddenly in late July, forcing Quebec and Ottawa to find temporary accommodation for asylum seekers, pending review of their claims for refugee status. Recent reports suggest only dozens are now crossing daily, compared to hundreds just a few weeks ago.

Shining a light on sovereignty 

Lisée made the comments as the party released a series of web-based ads aimed at answering questions about what an independent Quebec would look like.

When he won the party leadership last year, Lisée broke with years of tradition by promising a PQ government would not hold a referendum in its first mandate.

But in the months since taking the helm, the party has dipped badly in the polls. Most recent figures suggest the PQ is trailing both the governing Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec, which holds fewer seats than the PQ in the National Assembly.

Bernard Landry speaks during a news conference after his resignation as Parti Québécois leader. His wife Chantal Renaud looks on. He had said he would stay on if he achieved a score of at least 76 per cent and his mark, only slightly above that threshold, wasn't good enough for him. (Clement Allard/Canadian Press)

"Members are asking for tools to be able to go out and speak with people about the independence question," Gabrielle Lemieux, the party's incoming president, said at Tuesday's news conference.

"They also asked for clarity and transparence in our positions on independence." 

Lisée acknowledged his promise to postpone a referendum may have given the impression sovereignty was no longer a priority for the party. He hopes the ad campaign, released on the eve of the party convention, will correct that.

"For those of you who thought the Parti Québécois was putting sovereignty aside — on the contrary. We're putting it in the spotlight," he said. 

Lisée presented a cool exterior to reporters when asked if he was nervous about Saturday's leadership review.

During the weekend meeting in Montreal, PQ members will vote on Lisée's performance so far as leader. At the last review, in 2011, Pauline Marois passed with a soaring 93 per cent. 

The unspoken threshold that many will be eyeing is 76.2 per cent. Bernard Landry stepped down suddenly in 2005 when members gave him that score, which he deemed insufficient to continue leading the party.

"I trust our members," Lisée said Tuesday.