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Pierre-Karl Peladeau, middle, attends a Parti Québécois debate with candidates Martine Ouellet, left, and Pierre Céré at Quebec City’s Laval campus on March 18, 2015.JACQUES BOISSINOT/The Canadian Press

Parti Québécois leadership candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau has apologized for saying that Quebec should hasten to achieve its independence before the window of opportunity is lost to federalist-leaning immigrants.

Less than 24 hours after his controversial remarks, Mr. Péladeau posted a note on his Facebook page, stating that "Quebeckers of all origins" are needed in the sovereignty project.

"I would like to apologize for the unfortunate phrase on demography and immigration that I uttered yesterday," the post by the media mogul said. "That phrase is inappropriate and does not reflect my thinking."

He said he was consulting with Maka Kotto, the sole non-white and foreign-born member of the PQ caucus, "to engage in a dialogue ... about our respective experiences."

Mr. Péladeau, who is the front-runner in the race to be the next PQ leader, waded into the sensitive topic during a candidates' debate Wednesday evening at Laval University in Quebec City.

"We won't have 25 years ahead of us to achieve this. With demographics, with immigration, we're certainly losing a riding each year," he said at the end of nearly two hours of debate.

While Quebec is the only province to control the selection of immigrants, Mr. Péladeau said that isn't enough to ensure that the newcomers will embrace sovereignty.

"Who's responsible for the immigrants who come and settle in Quebec? It's the federal government. It's true it's a shared jurisdiction but they swear allegiance to the Queen," he said.

"So we don't have 25 years before us. It's now that we have to get to work. It's right now that we have to ask Quebeckers the question and make all the proper efforts to convince them."

Speaking with journalists afterward, Mr. Péladeau said he wasn't criticizing immigrants.

According to Radio-Canada and La Presse, Mr. Péladeau told reporters that he wanted to underline that the province needs to devote as much resources integrating newcomers as the federal government did.

"We need to counter the enormous federal propaganda machine," he said.

Other leadership candidates at the debate – Alexandre Cloutier, Bernard Drainville, Martine Ouellet and Pierre Céré – disagreed with Mr. Péladeau's remarks.

"For me, immigration has nothing to do with this," Mr. Cloutier told the audience. "I wish the Parti Québécois to be representative of the entire population."

The PQ's political rivals quickly attacked Mr. Péladeau.

Premier Philippe Couillard said it showed the PQ was drifting towards ethnic nationalism.

"It's extremely worrisome. The PQ is showing its real face, it's a sectarian party," said Health Minister Gaétan Barrette.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault said Mr. Péladeau's remarks were clumsy. "The sovereignty project is going nowhere. So now they're looking for scapegoats."

Mr. Péladeau's comments underline a long-running issue with the PQ, which has to portray its nation-building project as an inclusive idea, even though it's been repeatedly shunned by most non-francophone Quebeckers.

The party's image was also affected by its decision two years ago to promote a charter of values that would have banned public employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols.

The sense of urgency stated by Mr. Péladeau also points at demographic headaches for the party.

Sovereigntists once believed that time was on their side because, at the time of the last referendum in 1995, their movement was more popular with young people than older voters.

Since then, however, the PQ found that its support now comes mainly from older francophones, raising fears that the party is a one-generation occurrence whose main purpose is no longer relevant to later cohorts.