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Quebec election: Poilievre win looms on trail as Legault causes stir on immigration

MONTREAL — Federal politics crept into Quebec's provincial election campaign on Sunday as the province's political leaders faced questions about Pierre Poilievre's status as the newly minted head of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault greets a supporter during an election campaign stop in Saint-Jérôme, Que., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — Federal politics crept into Quebec's provincial election campaign on Sunday as the province's political leaders faced questions about Pierre Poilievre's status as the newly minted head of the Conservative Party of Canada.

The Ontario MP cruised to a landslide victory in the party's leadership contest, with officials announcing on Saturday that he had secured nearly 70 per cent of support on the first ballot. 

Poilievre addressed Quebecers during his victory speech, speaking of his attachment to the French language and saying "the Quebec nation is standing up to wokeism," after referring to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government as "woke."

Quebec party leaders offered diverging opinions on the new Conservative leader on Day 15 of the provincial campaign.

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade congratulated Poilievre on his win and welcomed discussion on Quebec's needs and respect of its jurisdiction. But she remained cautious about the significance of the new Conservative leader and the positions he espouses. 

Asked about wokeism, Anglade said such comments only serve to divide.

"Every time we put labels on everyone, we divide Quebecers, and we don't need that," Anglade said after making an announcement about free public transit for students and retirees in Laval, Que., north of Montreal

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault deflected all questions on Poilievre, telling reporters he would continue to defend Quebec's interests and is focused on the provincial campaign.

But Legault created a storm of his own during a speech to a few hundred supporters and several candidates in Drummondville, Que,  where he suggested non-French speaking immigration is a threat to national cohesion in the province.

"Sometimes this cohesion is shaken," Legault said. "The Premier of Quebec, the only head of state in North America who represents a majority of Francophones, has a duty to stop the decline of French in Quebec."

Asked afterwards who represented that threat, Legault pointed to the opposition parties like the Liberals and Québec solidaire who are campaigning on immigration levels to be increased if they are elected.

“It's like math. If we want to stop the decline for a while, we have to better integrate newcomers to French," Legault said, whose own party wants to cap immigration to 50,000 per year, including 80 per cent who speak French off the bat.

Just last week, Legault had stirred controversy with comments that linked immigration to the province with extremism and violence before apologizing. His latest comments were condemned by his opponents.

"The Ukrainians fleeing the bombs, the Italians, the Greeks, the Mexicans, the Portuguese, the Vietnamese, (...) is this a threat to our nation?" the Liberal's Anglade responded. "It's your speech, François Legault, that threatens social cohesion."

Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois called Sunday's comments on immigration “clumsy” and “hurtful.” 

"I'm tired of François Legault always talking about immigration as a problem, as a threat, as something that weakens us as a nation," he said.

Earlier in Saguenay, Que., Nadeau-Dubois, who was called a "woke" by Legault during an exchange last year, said the federal Conservatives had chosen a Trumpist candidate, referring to former U.S. President Donald Trump.

“I find it worrying,” he said, noting Legault — who was premier at the time — had called on Quebecers to support the Conservatives during the last federal election campaign.

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said Poilievre's win would cause many voters to reflect how they fit into a Trudeau-Poilievre equation federally, adding his victory could be a boon to the sovereigntist cause.

Speaking in Rouyn-Noranda, northwest of Montreal, St-Pierre Plamondon pledged to increase funding for community clinics by $500 million, particularly in rural areas that need access to better care.

He wouldn't comment when asked whether he shared Poilievre's opinion on wokeism.

“The word wokeism is not mine, it's his. The problem with this word, it includes everything and nothing … What does that mean exactly?" St-Pierre Plamondon said, noting there were plenty of differences between Quebec and other Canadian provinces when it comes to freedom of expression, religion and citizenship.

Poilievre secured the party leadership with 68.15 per cent, compared to his main rival, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who garnered just 16.07 per cent. In winning the Conservative leadership, Poilievre also captured 72 of the 78 ridings in the province.

The win raised questions on the campaign trail about whether it could provide a boost for the Conservative Party of Quebec. 

Quebec Conservative Leader Éric Duhaime congratulated Poilievre, who he has known for many years. He said Poilievre has a greater openness to the GNL-Quebec natural gas project, a $14-billion initiative rejected by the Legault government earlier this year that Duhaime's party wants to see go forward.

Duhaime, who made agricultural related announcements south of Quebec City, suggested the new Conservative leader may also offer a more attentive ear than the Liberals and New Democrats about the repatriation of immigration powers to the province 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2022

— with files from Caroline Plante, Stéphane Rolland, Frédéric Lacroix-Couture and Patrice Bergeron.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press