MONTREAL — The populist movements sweeping across Europe and that led to President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory is cascading through Québec, the mainly French-speaking province in eastern Canada, where a right-leaning candidate and his young party dominated this week’s elections.
François Legault, leader of the right-of-center Coalition Avenir Québec and the province’s new premier-elect, won a landslide victory, taking 74 of the legislature’s 125 seats — even though recent polls had predicted a far narrower win. The CAQ was founded only seven years ago.
Legault had promised during the campaign to cut Québec’s annual immigration quota from 50,000 newcomers per year to 40,000, while also requiring those wishing to settle in Québec to take a test on their proficiency in French and on “Québec values” within three years or face expulsion.
Late in the campaign, Legault was forced to apologize after assuring a supporter he would protect Québec culture from being “erased” by immigrants, but his anti-immigrant message did not deter voters.
Experts predict he may not be able follow through on his most controversial proposals, but his and CAQ’s landslide victory offered strong evidence that the populist, nationalist movement is thriving within one of Canada’s largest provinces. Québec is home to more than 8 million people or about 23 percent of the country’s more than 35 million people.
Daniel Salee, a professor of political science at Montreal’s Concordia University, said Legault’s new government would likely end up being taken to court by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government if it tried to approve anti-immigrant legislation.
“Deciding whether an immigrant is not worthy of staying here is essentially a thing the Canadian government can decide,” he said. “If we decide to give them residency or citizenship, it’s not determined by the provinces, it’s determined by the federal government.”
Stephan Reichhold, who oversees a federation of organizations that serve Québec’s immigrant and refugee population, said Legault can expect pushback from the business community, who are looking to attract fresh talent to the province’s booming economy, which has also shown signs of a labor shortage.
“The discourse worked quite while in terms of the election, but to realize it… the reality, to change the system he’s proposing, you have to change laws and rules and that would take two or three years to do it,” he said.
Since the 1960s, Québec politics have often centered around the question of how to preserve a cultural identity as a French-speaking province, surrounded by English-speaking Canadians and Americans. While that has most famously manifested in a separatist movement, Monday’s election proved disastrous for the Parti Québecois, the party most closely associated with a push for an independent state, winning just nine seats.
York University professor Francis Garon said that while a nationalist impulse is still very much alive in Québec, it more closely resembles populist movements across Europe and that which led to Trump’s win in the United States.
Just as ultra-nationalist groups have held high-profile marches in the U.S. since Trump’s election, the CAQ’s rise comes at a time when anti-immigration groups have taken root in Québec, with several holding noisy demonstrations over the past two years that have occasionally turned violent when confronted by left-wing counter-protests.
“I guess some of these people might find in the CAQ some ideas that are close to what they think about the immigration situation,” said Garon. “But at the same time, the CAQ is way larger than just immigration and trying to satisfy extreme right groups.”
Following Monday’s election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that he would work with Legault on numerous issues, including immigration. “There’s a lot of conversations to be had, and I’m sure we will have disagreements from time to time, but we will do so in a constructive way that serves the citizens that have entrusted us with responsibilities,” he said.
At his news conference Tuesday, Legault told reporters he planned to in place a plan that would keep public servants — from teachers to police officers to judges — from wearing religious garments, including the Muslim hijab and Jewish kippa at work. “The vast majority of Quebeckers would like to have a framework where people in authority positions must not wear religious signs,” he said.