Thursday's front page of the province's most popular daily newspaper was denounced by all parties in the National Assembly, who said it stigmatized Quebec's Indian community.
The premier also weighed in, though his comments were less forceful than those by opposition party members and one of his own ministers.
The Journal de Montréal featured a photo on its cover of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from his 2018 trip to India. He is wearing a traditional Indian outfit and holding his hands together.
The headline reads, in French: "The Indian variant is here," with a line below that appears to question Trudeau's reluctance to stop incoming flights from India.
On Wednesday, Quebec public health officials announced the discovery of the province's first case of the B1617 variant, which was first reported in India.
However, experts advise against calling it the Indian variant — or identifying any variant by the place in which it was first detected — because there's no conclusive proof that it originated there.
"I am deeply saddened, more than anything," said Sumitra Rajagopalan, a prominent member of Montreal's Indian community and founder of Bioastra Technologies, a company that produces smart materials.
"My thoughts are with my fellow compatriots of Indian origin that could very well be the target of prejudice following that article."
Online, the article is no longer visible on the newspaper's homepage.
Premier's comments less forceful than opposition
Benoit Charette, who became the Quebec's anti-racism minister just under two months ago, appeared to be the first provincial politician to criticize the newspaper's front page.
"For my part, it's the consequences that worry me," Charette wrote on Twitter. "We've seen a surge in racist acts targeting people of Chinese origin since the start of the pandemic."
Legault met with reporters Thursday morning. When asked about the font page, he said: "Listen, we always have to be careful when we talk about certain communities."
A reporter followed up, asking the premier if the newspaper's decision was careless, and Legault avoided the question, simply repeating the need to be careful.
Opposition party leaders were more forceful in their condemnation of the Journal's headline and photo.
"This image is just supporting pre-conceived ideas and it's not acceptable," said Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade.
Manon Massé, Québec Solidaire's parlimentary leader, said the cover page was unnecessary.
"I think this front page doesn't put the focus in the right place," she said. "When we talk about the U.K. [variant], they don't use this kind of picture, this kind of expression."
The Parti Québécois' health critic, Joël Arseneau, said the media has a responsibility to not fuel prejudices, especially during a pandemic.
"Anxiety is rampant," Arseneau said. "The last thing we need is for one part of the population to be stigmatized."
Journal de Montréal defends front page, union disagrees
Despite the criticism, the paper's editor-in-chief, Dany Doucet, refused to apologize for the front page.
In a response posted to the Journal's website, Doucet said the paper wanted to encourage the prime minister to make a decision about incoming flights from India, given the spread of the B1617 variant in the South Asian country.
"Our prime minister has often demonstrated a personal attachment to India, as evidenced by pictures of him that have circulated around the world during his official trip there," Doucet wrote. "Other countries, like New Zealand have already taken the decision [to cancel incoming flights from India]."
Doucet added: "Those who did not understand probably did not read the article inside, as too many commentators are prone to do."
The union that represents many of media company's employees disagreed. It said the front page was only the latest in a series of questionable editorial decisions by management at the newspaper, while adding that reporters have no say in how it gets put together.
"We have a serious discomfort [with the front page]," said Jean-François Racine, who is the spokesperson for Section 1450 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
"We don't endorse this, and we've been denouncing this for a long time, and we've been asking them to stop [doing this].
Racine, who is also a journalist with Le Journal de Québec, said it harms the reporters' reputations and makes it more difficult for them to do their work while out in the field.