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Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade speaks at a campaign event at a daycare in Gatineau, Que., during the 2022 Quebec general election, on Sept. 2.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s main party leaders sparred on Monday over the number of immigrants they would accept each year if elected, as the province grapples with both a labour shortage and concerns over the decline of French.

Three of the five major parties in Quebec have indicated they would reduce or maintain current immigration levels if they form government on Oct. 3, despite near-record low unemployment and calls from labour groups to bring over new workers.

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon had the most drastic reduction proposal, promising Monday to slash immigration levels back to pre-2003 levels in order to protect the French language and Quebec culture.

St-Pierre Plamondon, whose sovereigntist party is polling last of the major parties, suggested reducing the official levels from 50,000 a year to 35,000, combined with other measures such as insisting 100 per cent of economic immigrants speak French upon arrival, is the best way to ensure the language’s staying power in the province.

“The linguistic and cultural reality of Quebec implies that we find a model specific to Quebec, that we are not obliged to adopt the Canadian model,” he told reporters in Quebec City.

His plan comes as business groups around Quebec have urged the political parties to accept more newcomers if elected in order to fill what they say is more than 200,000 vacant jobs around the province.

The provincial unemployment rate was 4.1 per cent in July, which is below the Canadian average of 4.9 per cent and close to its record low of 3.9 per cent. Statistics Canada also said there were 224,370 vacant jobs in the first trimester of 2022.

St-Pierre Plamondon rejected the idea that more immigrants will help ease the labour crunch, saying the new arrivals also consume goods and services, such as health and education, which in turn requires yet more workers.

Only two parties – the Liberals and Québec solidaire – have said they would raise annual immigration rates above the current 50,000 if elected.

The Quebec Conservative party has proposed gradually reducing immigration targets while working to increase automation in the workplace and raise Quebec’s birth rate.

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said Monday that St-Pierre Plamondon is clearly “disconnected” from the reality on the ground and is not listening to employers who are struggling to find workers.

“The reality today is the biggest economic brake we have is the fact we don’t have enough people,” she told reporters in Trois-Rivières, Que. “How many organizations, how many associations have come out to say it?”

She’s proposing an initial immigration target of 70,000 a year if elected, then plans to work with individual regions to determine their real needs going forward.

Quebec’s official permanent immigration levels have been set at between 40,000 and 50,000 annually under the Coalition Avenir Québec government, but the province will take in nearly 70,000 immigrants in 2022 to make up for shortfalls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. Anglade said her proposal only keeps levels at what Quebec is currently accepting.

Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, meanwhile, suggested in a televised Radio-Canada interview Sunday night he believes the province could accept between 60,000 and 80,000 newcomers.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault said he would maintain the targets at around 50,000 per year, which he said best matches the province’s “integration capacity.”

He cited census data showing the percentage of Quebec residents who predominantly speak French at home declined to 77.5 per cent in 2021 from 79 per cent in 2016.

“Above 50,000, I’d like to know what Mrs. Anglade and Mr. Nadeau-Dubois will do to stop the decline of French,” he told reporters in Gatineau on Monday.

Mr. Legault acknowledged that bringing in more immigrants was one of the solutions to the current labour shortage, but said there was a need to balance economic needs with language protection.

He said the province should aim for a higher quality of life rather than demographic growth.

“It’s not a goal to climb to 10, 20, 30 million people in Quebec,” he said. “We’re 8.6 million residents. I think that’s a size that allows us to offer quality services.”

Mr. Legault was asked about whether limiting immigration would inevitably cause Quebec’s population to decline relative to other provinces, given Canada’s plan to accept over 450,000 new permanent residents by 2024.

Quebec’s influence in Canada comes from being a nation, and not solely its demographic weight, he said, calling Canada’s immigration policy “extreme” and predicting it will likely cause “integration challenges” even in other provinces.

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