Canada

Quebec election: Legault admits he isn't 'budding genius' on immigration

COTEAU-DU-LAC — Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault has tried to position his party as the only one capable of defending Quebec’s interests and identity with his hard line on reducing the number of immigrants allowed into the province by 20 per cent.

But a series of gaffes and admissions of ignorance over the weekend forced him to acknowledge he was not a “budding genius” on immigration law, and had his rivals proclaiming it was proof he lacked leadership potential.

Legault has been grilled on specifics by journalists since the topic of immigration became a flashpoint of Thursday’s leaders debate. Legault wants to reduce the number of immigrants to 40,000, arguing Quebec is failing to integrate them and 26 per cent leave. He also says 58 per cent cannot speak French, posing a threat to the language.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said he would maintain figures at roughly 52,000 a year, in part to fill labour shortages.

On Saturday, Legault was questioned on his proposal to force immigrants to pass a French-language and values test within three years of their arrival or face expulsion.

Asked how long an immigrant who has permanent residency status has to be in the country before he or she can receive Canadian citizenship, Legault paused, then said: “A few months.”

The correct answer is three years.

Legault paused at length repeatedly when faced with other citizenship-related questions, and gave vague answers. The video clip of his hesitancy was widely shared.

At the same time, immigration experts and federal officials have said Legault’s proposals for cuts and tests are not feasible under the federal-provincial agreements overseeing immigration. Legault countered that a CAQ win would be a clear sign Quebecers want control of the dossier and would convince Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to agree to negotiations.

On Sunday, Legault said he should have taken Saturday’s questions under deliberation before answering.

“I’m not a ‘budding genius’ when it comes to immigration,” he said, referring to a former popular Quebec television program (Génies en herbe) that pitted high school students against one another in trivia contests. He joked he had been studying all night to make up for it.

But then he said the federal government only gave citizenship to permanent residents once they had undergone background security and health tests. In fact, candidates must undergo those tests, and be awarded a selection certificate by Quebec, before they can get permanent residency status. He also said permanent residents must pass a test on Canadian history and values, when in fact that exam is for citizenship applicants. After his responses, he said he might have to study those questions further.

He acknowledged his entrance tests would mean prospective candidates might have to live six years in the province before they could attain Canadian citizenship, as opposed to three. That is the price necessary to protect French, he said, and immigrants are free to apply to other provinces.

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée pounced, saying Legault’s ignorance on a topic he has been promoting for two years hurts his credibility and shows he’s not ready to be premier. Couillard took the rare step of addressing Legault’s comments with a prepared statement Sunday.

“(Legault) wants to do expulsion tests, but he failed the knowledge test,” he said. “His uniquely partisan interests are sowing arguments and division, to the detriment of Quebec’s economic prosperity.”

Legault responded that his immigration proposals resonate well with voters to whom he has spoken. He accused the media and Couillard of stoking the immigration issue.

Also on Sunday, Legault announced a CAQ government would invest $1.2 billion in restoring the province’s rundown elementary and high schools, which is less than the $1.56 billion the Liberals set aside for school renovation and construction in their capital works budget, released last spring. Legault said the Liberal promises were not valid, given their lack of progress on the issue for the last 15 years.

For Monday’s English-language leaders debate, Legault said he had been practising by speaking English on his campaign bus for the last two days, and watching Netflix shows in English. His main themes will be the same ones he has promoted throughout the campaign, he said: education, health care and “putting more money in Quebecers’ wallets.”

rbruemmer@postmedia.com

twitter.com/renebruemmer

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