Legault says more immigration would be 'suicidal,' creating a flashpoint with Quebec businesses

Francois Legault,
Francois Legault,

Quebec Premier François Legault, who is on the verge of a landslide victory in next week’s provincial election, told a business audience that raising immigration levels would be “suicidal” for the French language, previewing what will almost certainly be a flashpoint with the employers in his second term.

“Since we can’t stop the decline of French, I think that a lot of the Quebec nation wants to protect the French language, it’s a bit suicidal to increase (the number of immigrants),” Legault said at an event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Montreal on Wednesday.

Few in the audience would have liked seeing Legault take such a hardline on an issue that many economists say is vital to Quebec’s economic competitiveness. Among provinces, Quebec has the second-highest vacancy rate in the country after British Columbia, and given its aging population, many of those jobs will go unfilled without help from outsiders. “If you’re an employer nowadays, it’s like fishing in an empty lake,” Karl Blackburn, head of the Conseil du Patronat du Québec, the province’s biggest business lobby group, told the Montreal Gazette earlier this year.

With less than a week left until the election on Oct. 3, pollsters say that Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is assured a second consecutive majority. Leger Marketing Inc., a market analytics and research company, reported that Legault is in the lead with 37 per cent support, well ahead of the leftish Quebec Solidaire at 17 per cent and the Liberal Party at 16 per cent.

Philippe Fournier, who aggregates poll results at 338Canada.com, says the latest surveys have the CAQ on track to win some 92 seats, while the Liberals would form Opposition with a mere 20 lawmakers. Fournier’s calculations show there is a 99 per cent chance that the CAQ will win the most seats.

Legault, who co-founded holiday airline Transat A.T. Inc. and speaks openly about his desire to narrow the wealth gap between his province and Ontario, is perceived as business friendly. However, when it comes to immigration, executives in Quebec are at odds with the premier, especially in Montreal, where a dynamic group of technology companies has grown fearful that language politics will hinder their ability to grow.

“We need new bodies, new brains, new hands,” said Michel Leblanc, president of the chamber of commerce, adding that Quebec shouldn’t hinder immigration “with all sorts of qualifications,” which will only make it harder for Montreal to compete with Toronto for scarce talent.

Yet that appears to be the path Legault intends to take, and barring an 11th-hour collapse in the CAQ’s popularity, his agenda will face little resistance in Quebec City. “Right now, we cannot increase the 50,000 immigrants per year because it will mean that we will continue to see a decline in the percentage of Quebecers, and especially Montrealers, that are speaking French,” Legault said.

Instead of bringing in more immigrants, the CAQ wants Quebec to be more selective when filling its current quota, while also incentivizing individuals to work in areas where labour shortages are most acute. Over the next four years, the CAQ has pledged to reduce immigration to 50,000 from the current target of 70,000.

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