Anger, political pushback in Quebec after Legault says cultures are 'not on the same level'

When Quebec Premier François Legault said bluntly this week that he and his party "oppose multiculturalism," he tried to add some qualifiers to that argument.

Quebec has a different model from the rest of Canada, Legault explained -- "interculturalism" rather than multiculturalism, where different cultures don't just co-exist but blend into a dominant, French-speaking culture.

He added that he's against putting "all cultures on the same level."

He prefers a "culture of integration" first and foremost, he also said.

But some of those who know this debate most intimately said there's little nuance to be found in the premier's comments, and that his words aren't surprising but are still deeply unwelcome.

"Every time it's as painful as it is the first time," said Harginder Kaur, the Quebec spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

"You don't expect such comments from the government [of the place] you live in."

Kaur, 22, said immigrants to Quebec are more aware than anyone of the emphasis on "francization," or learning to live in French and blending into Quebec culture. 

"I speak fluent French, I have implemented all Quebecois values -- my family as well, my friends as well," said Kaur.

'WHO IS HE TO DECIDE THAT?'

As a Sikh, she can sympathize in a way with Quebec's long effort to protect French within North America, she said.

But to her, there's no excuse for comments like Legault's, she said, particularly the idea that different cultures can be put on different "levels," as the premier said.

"Basically he's just saying that all religions are not equal, right?" she said. "But who is he to decide that?"

"Being a Sikh, I understand where they're coming from because Sikhs are a minority as well... even in India," she said.

"But we understand that equality is what builds a nation, and you cannot preserve your own culture at the expense of another."

For Quebec's leaders to suggest different cultures have different value shows "the fear that they have," she said, but it's also insulting to those who have made big efforts to resettle in Quebec.

"If we're a problem, they need to understand that immigrants come here for a better life, because of the values that Canada holds," she said.

"We all know French, we all know our language -- we preserve their culture and our culture," she added. "They don't understand what we're doing for Quebec as well."

Legault's comments came after one of his top ministers, Simon Jolin-Barrette, gave a high-profile speech in Paris in which he also said Quebec's government considers multiculturalism one of its major problems.

He gave the speech a day before Quebec's national holiday, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.

QUEBEC'S MODEL IS A SUCCESS, NOT A CRISIS: LIBERALS

Legault and Jolin-Barrette both criticized what they called the Canadian model of multiculturalism, usually described as a mosaic of different cultures. They said it's an example of individual rights overriding the collective good, and that it's harming Quebec.

In contrast, Quebec, since the 1980s or so, has developed its own model when it comes to immigration -- the "interculturalism" that Legault referred to.

But a political opponent said they were presenting a twisted version of Quebec history, in his view.

"We all know, for the past 40 years, that we have developed our own model [of immigration] in Quebec with our own identity," said Saul Polo, the Liberal MNA for Laval-des-rapides.

The problem, he said, is that in many people's view, it's been a success and not a crisis needing fixing or stoking new feelings of "division" or "being attacked."

Quebec Liberals see Bill 101, the original language law, as fundamentally working well and perhaps needing a few tweaks, said Polo.

His party also takes issue in particular with the idea that people not speaking French at home is a problem.

"Where we don't see eye to eye [is the idea that] what languages people speak at home is a major factor that indicates whether French is being threatened in Quebec," he said.

"[Legault] sees the presence of all these cultures, especially if you speak other languages at home, as being a potential threat," Polo said.

"At the end of the day, we can fully integrate ourselves within the Quebec society, but also keep our own heritage and valorize it," he said. The CAQ is "trying to say we need to forget our heritage to feel fully Quebecer."

That argument also strikes deeply for Polo, who was born in Colombia and moved to Quebec at age six. He was educated fully in French but speaks Spanish at home with his family and his son.

He echoed Kaur in saying that Legault's words were insulting.

"No matter the sacrifices and efforts that we do to fully integrate into this society, it's still not enough for him to fully accept us as Quebecers," he said.

"It's not up to Legault to decide who's a Quebecer or who's not a Quebecer."

PQ: IF LEGAULT IS SERIOUS, QUEBEC SHOULD SEPARATE

The other main opposition party took a different tack, saying that if Legault is serious about denouncing Canada's model, he should also get serious about sovereignty.

"The CAQ is keeping us in a cul-de-sac by denouncing Canadian multiculturalism while insisting on staying in Canada at all costs," said Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon in a statement to CTV News.

"Canada is imposing its vision of communitarianism on us and we are wasting time and energy trying to maintain our vision of society based on integration and universal citizenship, regardless of our differences," he said.

"The only way to solve this impasse is to create our own country. If the leader of the CAQ and Mr. Jolin-Barrette are serious, they must have the courage to name the only solution: independence."

Legault has said his party is committed to not holding a referendum, though it has recently brought some new candidates on board in the upcoming election who were staunch past separatists.

Quebec solidaire, the third main opposition party, didn't respond to a request for comment from CTV.

Newsletters

Breaking News alerts, info on contests, and special offers from partners