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Legault romps in Quebec, setting up a clash with business over immigration: What you need to know

Francois Legault,
Francois Legault,

Quebec Premier François Legault secured a second consecutive majority government on Oct. 3, leading his nationalist, conservative Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) to victory in 90 districts, 27 more seats than he needed to command a majority in the legislature. Dominique Anglade’s Liberal Party will form the Opposition after winning 21 seats, mostly in Montreal. Here’s what you need to know:

Dominant performance

Some pundits had called Legault’s campaign “catastrophic,” but if so, the province’s voters opted to give him a pass, perhaps because the premier had established a deep well of sympathy during his management of the pandemic. The CAQ won 41 per cent of the vote, and the party’s 90-seat contingent in the legislature rivals the contemporary record of 92 set by the late Robert Bourassa’s Liberals in 1989. News outlets had called the election for Legault about 10 minutes after polls closed.

“Quebecers have sent a strong message,” Legault said in his victory speech. “This evening, Quebecers told us, ‘Let’s continue!’” In English, he said, “When I say that Quebecers form a great nation, I mean all Quebecers from all regions, of all ages, or all origins. I’m going to be the premier of all Quebecers.”

Quebec’s electoral map is now a sea of blue, the CAQ’s colour, surrounding a patch of red in Montreal, where the Liberals won all but one of their 21 seats. There was speculation that the Liberals could lose their status as the No. 2 party, so the result represented a small victory for Anglade in her first campaign as leader.

But the loss also showed how far the Liberals have fallen since losing power to Legault in 2011. The party won only 14.4 per cent of the popular vote, less than the 15.4 per cent won by Québec Solidaire, a left-wing party that won 11 seats.

The Parti Québécois won the other three seats and 14.6 per cent of the popular vote. The Conservative Party won no seats despite getting almost 13 per cent of the 4.1 million votes cast.

With no dominant opposition party, there’s little standing in the way of Legault implementing his agenda to the extent he sees fit.

What Legault promised

Immigration, health care, climate and the cost of living dominated the campaign, which began at the end of August.

The CAQ promised to give $600 to Quebecers with an annual income of less than $50,000 by year-end, and lower the personal income tax rate by one per cent, highlight spending promises over the next two year worth about $10 billion, according to Bank of Montreal. That spending would erase the province’s budget surplus, yet still would leave Quebec as one of the more creditworthy provinces, based on current bond yields.

On climate, Legault said he would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 37.5 per cent below 1990 levels, reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. That could lead to more hydro-electric dams, as the premier said he would have Hydro-Québec study the rivers that could be dammed to create more power.

The CAQ plans to reduce annual immigration to 50,000 from 70,000. Notably, the CAQ said it would tighten laws controlling the French language, especially for immigrants, who would receive all their government documents in French six months following their arrival.

“It has been a difficult four years for the English-speaking community, and going into the election, there were a lot of concerns and anxiety,” said Eva Ludvig, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN), a non-profit that links English groups across the province.

However, Ludvig said she was optimistic, given that Legault spoke a few words of English in his victory speech. “We are hoping that this is going to be the turning of a page because it’s very important to the English-speaking community,” she said. “A lot of people are very anxious, very concerned about the future.”

The QCGN is opposed to the CAQ’s Bill 96, which tightens French language laws in the province. The bill will have a detrimental impact to the Quebec business community, Ludvig said, by inhibiting companies from attracting and keeping qualified employees. “These are all disincentives to a vibrant economy,” she said.

Immigration a sticking point 

Legault, co-founder of holiday airline Transat A.T. Inc., was previously considered business friendly. But his views on immigration have created a gulf between him and the Montreal business community.

Recently, Legault told a business audience that increasing the number of immigrants in Quebec would be suicidal for the province and for the French language, even though the Montreal business community believes immigrants are crucial to resolve the labour shortage. He also received flack for linking immigration to violence and extremism.

Legault had to apologize twice during the campaign to extinguish fires of his own making. But he also had to put out fires started by other members of his team. For example, he reprimanded immigration minister Jean Boulet for claiming the majority of immigrants who “go to Montreal, don’t work, and don’t speak French.”

Legault reaffirmed his party’s commitment to protecting the French language during his victory speech. “The biggest duty of a prime minister is to protect our language,” he said.

Michel Leblanc, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, said reducing the number of immigrants would only make it more difficult for Montreal to compete with Toronto for talented workers.

“We need new bodies, new brains, new hands,” Leblanc said.

Karl Blackburn, head of the Conseil du Patronat du Québec, the province’s biggest business lobby group, agreed that the situation was grave. He likened the current labour shortage to “fishing in an empty lake.”

Following the election, the Blackburn’s group wrote in an email, “The CPQ offers its most sincere congratulations to François Legault who has been chosen once more as (premier) of Quebec. While Quebec is facing several major economic challenges, we offer our full cooperation to meet them.”

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