Legault pledges to demand more control from Ottawa over immigration to Quebec

Quebec premier François Legault says he will campaign on demanding nearly full immigration control from Ottawa in Quebec's upcoming provincial elections.

At Coalition Avenir Québec caucus, premier says he will campaign on demanding more immigration powers

Quebec Premier François Legault responds to the Opposition during question period on May 24 at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Premier François Legault gave a glimpse into what his provincial election campaign will look like Sunday, with a speech outlining his plan to demand Ottawa hand over more immigration powers to Quebec.

Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), Legault's party, held its caucus in Drummondville, Que., this weekend, a city northeast of Montreal. 

Legault told the crowd of about 1,000 people there he wants to ask Quebecers for a "strong mandate" in the Oct. 3 election to be a powerful negotiator with Ottawa on matters of immigration.

The speech Legault gave, which he dubbed "Pride," was heavily nationalist, calling for the preservation of the French language, Quebec culture and listing the passing of Bills 21 (on secularism) and 96 (the overhaul of the Charter of the French language) as wins for his government.

"We changed Quebec," he said. 

Bill 21 outlaws civil servants in positions of authority, including teachers, lawyers, police officers and judges, from wearing religious garb or symbols. In practice, the law has for the most part affected female Muslim teachers who wear head scarves.

While Quebec manages economic immigration to the province — a power other provinces and territories in Canada do not have — the federal government is responsible for family reunification and the admission of refugees, representing close to half of newcomers to the province every year.

Legault said he wants Quebec to be able to choose much of that remaining half, except for refugees, so that it can prioritize French-speaking foreigners. He said that family reunification cases represent about 11,000 of the 50,000 people who immigrate to the province every year. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far rejected Legault's calls for Quebec to have complete control over immigration into the province but has pointed to Bill C-13 tabled by the federal Liberals, which in part aims to increase immigration from French-speaking countries.

Legault said it was a question of the survival of the French language in the province, pointing to the state of Louisiana as an example of a place that used to be predominantly French-speaking but no longer is, surrounded by a nearly monolingual English-speaking country.

"It's important for Quebecers to understand that it's a question of survival," for a French-speaking Quebec, he said.

But when asked by a reporter if there were government studies on the impacts of family reunification and the use of French, Legault's answer wasn't clear. 

"Is it too much to ask them to learn before moving to Quebec? Is it too much? I don't think so," he said.

Quebec Premier François Legault shakes hands with delegates as he enters the Coalition Avenir Québec annual congress in Drummondville, Que. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

A heavily criticized clause in Bill 96, which was voted into law last week, calls on refugees to learn French within six months of arriving to Quebec, after which they can no longer access most public services in another language.

Critics say six months is not enough to become fluent in French, and that the clause will make it difficult for immigrants to access basic services.

Tuesday, after the law passed, Legault gave reporters a heads up that he wanted to turn to pressuring the federal government to handing over its immigration levers.

"That's where the focus should be," in protecting French, he said. 

Critics say policies go beyond language

But some critics see Legault's focus on legislation targeting minorities as a way to appeal to his voter base, largely composed of older portions of the Quebec population and those living outside of major cities. 

Some groups helping immigrants, migrant workers and refugees in Montreal believe Quebec is creating a two-tiered immigration system, making it harder for non-French-speaking people to access permanent residency, while relying more heavily on a vulnerable temporary foreign workforce to fill serious labour shortages. 

"I doubt it's solely a question of the French language," said Mostafa Henaway, an advocate at the Immigrant Workers' Centre, in an interview last week.

Indigenous leaders across the province have also denounced Legault's government for failing to listen to their calls to be exempt from Bill 96, saying their sovereignty and language revitalization efforts are at stake.

On Sunday, Legault made no mention of the labour shortage or of problems with access to health care — such as emergency room capacities, surgery wait lists and a shortage of family doctors. He said he would unveil a health care plan at some point in the campaign. 

Statistics Canada reported in the fall that there were 279,000 job vacancies in Quebec in 2021.

Four months away from the October election, the CAQ has already recruited candidates in more than 100 electoral districts, and so far half of those candidates are women. The party still has 29 out of 125 candidates to name.


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

With files from Cathy Senay and La Presse canadienne