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Quebec votes: Legault criticizes immigration minister who said newcomers 'don't work'

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier François Legault says his Immigration Minister Jean Boulet is no longer qualified for the position after recent comments emerged in which Boulet said the majority of immigrants "don't work.
Coalition Avenir Québec François Legault speaks to reporters during an election campaign stop in L'Assomption, Que., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. Legault says raising immigration levels above 50,000 newcomers would be "suicidal" for the Quebec nation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier François Legault says his Immigration Minister Jean Boulet is no longer qualified for the position after recent comments emerged in which Boulet said the majority of immigrants "don't work."

Campaigning for re-election, the Coalition Avenir Québec leader was confronted Wednesday with a statement Boulet made last week during a candidates debate. Legault said in a series of broadcast interviews that Boulet would not be immigration minister if the CAQ wins Monday's vote.

Earlier in the day, Legault distanced himself from Boulet's comments and told reporters his minister made a "serious error."

"I regret that, and I think Mr. Boulet regrets that," Legault said. "It's unacceptable … it's not true what he said and he understands that it's not true."

Legault, however, waded back into the sensitive immigration issue himself Wednesday. In an appearance before the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, he said it would be "suicidal" for the Quebec nation if more than 50,000 immigrants per year settled in Quebec, because it would be impossible to properly integrate them and teach them French.

Legault told reporters he used the term "suicidal" to describe something that is detrimental. "I think the vast majority of people, they understand that we have to have a balance between economy and protecting French, and that's what I explained," Legault said. He added: “Some want us to increase immigration, but I explained it was suicidal for French … suicidal for the Quebec nation that speaks French, to increase the number of immigrants."

During a Sept. 21 debate in his riding of Trois-Rivières, located between Montreal and Quebec City, Boulet said, "80 per cent of immigrants go to Montreal, don't work, don't speak French, or don't adhere to the values of Quebec society."

Boulet apologized on Twitter Wednesday for his comments, a recording of which circulated widely on social media. "The excerpt broadcast does not reflect what I think." Immigrants, he added, "are a source of wealth for Quebec."

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade condemned the "dangerous" and "divisive" comments made by Legault and his immigration minister. 

“At some point, it's enough, the apologies," Anglade said. "It's not just about apologizing each time, but to reflect about the words you use in the context of an election campaign."

Legault's comments on immigration have caused a stir throughout the campaign. 

Legault tied immigration to "violence" and "extremism" — comments he walked back — and days later he told a campaign crowd that non-French-speaking immigration is a threat to "national cohesion" in the province. During the first leaders debate, he warned that if Quebec doesn't gain more powers over immigration, it could end up like Sweden, which is struggling with a crime wave linked to immigration.

Anglade said, “When you have used all these words, they are no longer errors, they are deliberate choices that he makes. He deliberately chooses … division, because it serves him politically."

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said Legault was trying to create a diversion by making inflammatory comments on immigration, calling the remarks "irresponsible."

Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was dumbfounded by the comments. 

"Welcoming people to Quebec, does that lead us to the death of the Quebec nation?" Nadeau-Dubois asked. He said Boulet was simply following Legault's lead.

"When the premier spends an election campaign badmouthing immigrants, is it any wonder that one of his ministers goes down the path opened by the premier?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2022.

— With files from Pierre Saint-Arnaud, Stéphane Rolland, Caroline Plante and Frédéric Lacroix-Couture.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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