Quebec legislature rises ahead of fall election with CAQ riding high in polls

MONTREAL — As the Quebec legislature met Friday for the last time before the fall election, the opposition parties attempted to position themselves against a government they say has used language and identity as a distraction. 

But they face a difficult fight to gain traction with the public ahead of the Oct. 3 vote, with Premier François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec party consistently polling higher than 40 per cent — more than double the support of any of its opponents.

The Opposition Liberal Party used the final question period of the session to accuse the government failing to help Quebecers manage inflation, to protect the environment or to improve the health-care system.

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said the government has pursued a policy of division with its wide-reaching language law reform, known as Bill 96. That law, adopted in late May, limits the use of English in the public service and the health-care system and permits inspectors to conduct searches and seizures in businesses without warrants.

"Next Oct. 3, Quebecers will have a choice between a party … of arrogance and division, and a party that wants to bring all Quebecers together," Anglade told reporters.

The rising cost of living will be a major issue during the election campaign, she said, adding that it's time Quebecers come together.

"People are extremely frustrated — not only the anglophones — people in general," she said. "People are feeling we need to unite ourselves; we need to stop dividing ourselves, because what's ahead of us is going to be a tough period in terms of the economy."

Almost immediately after his government adopted Bill 96, Legault chose his next battle — obtaining more powers over immigration from the federal government. He recently warned that if Quebec is not able to exercise more control over who is allowed to immigrate, the survival of the nation is at stake and the province risks turning into Louisiana — a place with French history, but where few people speak the language.

As Legault summed up his government's achievements Friday, he returned to the issue of language and identity, saying that immigrants will not choose to speak French if they're given the option.

"If you give the choice to the immigrants of the language, eventually we will not speak French anymore in Quebec," he told reporters.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, leader of second opposition party Québec solidaire, told reporters Legault has focused on language and identity instead of working on issues that matter to Quebecers, like the cost of living and the environment.

"I will not let François Legault transform this election into a debate on Louisiana or immigration," Nadeau-Dubois said. "The housing crisis, the cost-of-living crisis, the environment … I think those are the real priorities of Quebecers."

For the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, the fact that Quebec has to keep asking the federal government for more power is a sign the CAQ's approach, which seeks more autonomy for Quebec within Canada, has failed. PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon suggested that Legault, who is a former PQ cabinet minister, along with two new high-profile candidates for the CAQ who have openly championed Quebec independence, is in denial.

"Very rarely, in the history of Québec and in the history of democracy have we seen people that are not honest with themselves come up with good public policies and with care for the population," St-Pierre Plamondon told reporters. 

Legault highlighted his record on Friday, boasting that his government recently helped people manage inflation by distributing $500 cheques to Quebecers who earned $100,000 or less in 2021. He said Quebec's economy is growing faster than the Canadian average and said his government has banned the exploration for and the exploitation of fossil fuels on the province's territory. No other government, he said, "has done more for the environment."

Legault described a vote for the CAQ as a vote for a richer, more prosperous Quebec, where people have more pride. And despite the claims of the opposition, Legault said, he wants to bring people together and not push for Quebec independence. 

"I want all anglophones, all Quebecers, all immigrants to be with us and continue building a Quebec with a strong economy, but where we keep French as the common language," he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press