Immigration takes centre stage at Quebec English-language leaders debate

Immigration policy, once again, featured as a key issue in this provincial election campaign, as Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and François Legault, the leader of Coalition Avenir Québec, sparred repeatedly at Monday's historic English-language debate.

'Your policy is not acceptable,' Philippe Couillard tells François Legault on immigration plan

From left to right, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée, CAQ Leader Francois Legault and Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé shake hands before their English debate Monday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Immigration policy, once again, featured as a key issue in Quebec's election campaign as Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and his chief rival François Legault, the leader of Coalition Avenir Québec, sparred repeatedly at Monday's historic English-language debate.

It was the first televised debate in English between Quebec's political leaders, with two weeks left before Quebecers go to the polls Oct. 1. 

The showdown came at a crucial moment in the 39-day race, after no clear winner emerged from last week's French-language debate and Legault, the front-runner, fumbled questions about his party's immigration platform over the weekend. 

Couillard repeatedly took aim at Legault's plan to cut the number of immigrants by more than 20 per cent, to 40,000 a year, and to impose French-language and values tests on new arrivals.

"I have never heard a political leader in Quebec, ever, recommend not only diminishing the number of immigrants we take in, but proposing expulsion tests for immigrants, which made them very, very frightened today," Couillard said.

"Your policy is not acceptable," he told Legault at another point in the debate.

The CAQ leader countered that the current immigration policy isn't working because too many new arrivals — 26 per cent, he said — are leaving the province.

"Twenty-six per cent leaving is a failure," he said, pointing a finger at Couillard. 

"What we think at the CAQ is that it's better to take less but give each of them more services," Legault said.

Legault, left, defended his contentious immigration policy, criticizing Couillard's Liberal government. 'They didn't help the newcomers in Quebec,' he said. (Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette)

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée, who was clearly the most comfortable in his second language, slammed both of his main rivals, telling Couillard: "You talk a good talk, but your track record is dismal."

Lisée said the Couillard government hasn't invested enough in integrating and teaching French to immigrants.

But Legault's approach makes even less sense, he said.

"You would scare them away," Lisée told Legault. "You know so little about immigration."

Manon Massé, whose left-leaning Québec Solidaire appears poised to make gains on Oct. 1, was the least comfortable in English and, at times, struggled to articulate her platform.

In a question from a Nigerian refugee, who asked about the challenges of finding a job as an English speaker, she made reference to her own difficulties.

"It's hard to learn a new a language," she said. "With real investment in French-language training, I think that will help."

Lisée, whose fluency in English made him appear most at ease in the debate, listens as Massé makes a point. 'It's hard to learn a new language,' said Massé, referring to her own challenges as she talked about the difficulties newcomers face. (Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette)

Costing pre-kindergarten

The debate touched on six main subjects: education, health, the economy, the environment, identity and relations with English-speaking Quebecers.

The leaders picked up on many of the key talking points they have been stressing throughout the campaign.

The challenges of keeping anglophones in the province and turning out fully bilingual young people ready for the Quebec workforce disintegrated into a shouting match between Couillard and Legault over who could do a better job of bookkeeping.

Couillard argued that Legault's proposal to open pre-kindergarten classrooms across the province for all four-year-olds was unrealistic.

The CAQ maintains the plan would cost $311 million and open 50,000 spots in public daycare.

"You didn't cost it," said Couillard, a retired neurosurgeon. "You vastly underestimated the cost in your financial statement."

Legault replied: "You're a doctor. I'm a chartered accountant. I think I know the numbers better than you."

Missed it? Watch the full debate here: 

Specialists under spotlight

On a question about access to health care in English in the regions, Legault again hammered away at Couillard for his government's deal with specialists, who now earn more than their counterparts in Ontario.

The CAQ leader said the money spent on that agreement should have gone to improving care, especially outside Montreal.

"That's where the money went in health care — to the specialists," Legault said.

"You could not tear this agreement apart," Couillard said in defence, countering that the agreement had ensured specialists would be available in rural areas.

For his part, Lisée suggested the comparison between specialist salaries in Quebec and "Doug Ford's Ontario" is moot.

"We want Quebecers to decide how much they should be paid," he said.  

Lisée said a PQ government would ensure English-speakers have access to health care in their own language and it would keep the secretariat for anglophone affairs established by the Liberal government last year. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Lisée said a PQ government would ensure English-speakers have access to care.  

That was echoed by Couillard, who said his government's recently formed secretariat for anglophone issues aims to ensure access to health care services in English.

Lisée referred to the speech he "famously wrote" for Lucien Bouchard in the former PQ premier's historic meeting with anglophone Quebecers at the Centaur Theatre in 1996.   

"Mr. Bouchard said when you're in pain, when you get to the hospital, you don't need a language test, you need a blood test."

"That was a good speech," Couillard interjected, laughing, prompting a smile from the PQ leader — the first hint of the evening that the PQ and the Liberal leaders see themselves as allies in the fight to wrest votes from the CAQ's Legault.

Wage gap vs. labour shortage

When discussion turned to the economy and Quebec's high income tax burden, the CAQ leader said a critical problem is the persistent wage gap between workers in Ontario and Quebec.

"This gap of 11 per cent was there 15 years ago, and it hasn't changed," said Legault.

"The main economic challenge facing Quebec today is not salary," snapped Couillard in response. "It's [the] labour shortage — which Mr. Legault refuses to recognize exists."

Couillard makes a point during the English leaders' debate. (Allen McInnis/Montreal Gazette)

There will be one more leaders debate — in French, later in the week — before the vote.

Polls suggest the CAQ is in majority territory, buoyed by its popularity among francophones.

The Liberals are second in the polls, followed by the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire.

CBC Quebec presented the debate, in partnership with CTV, Global, CJAD, Citytv and the Montreal Gazette. 

With files from Canadian Press

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