MONTREAL — Francois Legault tried to divert attention from his immigration policies Tuesday, as a report from a research institute undercut his campaign rhetoric on newcomers and two new polls placed his Coalition Avenir Quebec in a virtual tie with the Liberals.
Following Monday night's English-language debate in which he was attacked for wanting to expel immigrants who fail to pass a values and French-language test, Legault came out hard against Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard.
The Liberals can't defend their record on education and health care, Legault told reporters on Day 27 of the 39-day campaign. Furthermore, the Coalition leader brought back a thus far under-used weapon against Couillard: corruption allegations.
"(Couillard) is trying to run a fear campaign," Legault said south of Montreal. "He doesn't want to talk about the investigation into corruption in his party."
Corruption scandals have dogged Couillard's government since he won the 2014 election, primarily involving alleged misdeeds committed by the previous Liberal government under his predecessor, Jean Charest.
Le Journal de Montreal reported in June that investigators with Quebec's anti-corruption unit had grown frustrated with the length of probes into the Liberals and lamented how arrests of former party fundraisers had been postponed.
Immigration-related matters aren't the only issue voters should be thinking about ahead of the Oct. 1 election, Legault said.
"Quebecers need to take everything into account when they go to vote," he said. "Don't forget the past 15 years (of Liberal rule)."
Couillard, speaking to reporters after delivering a speech to the Montreal Board of Trade, dismissed the allegations he was running on fear.
"I'm the one making people afraid?" Couillard asked rhetorically. "I think the people who are afraid are those would be subjected to a (French-language) test and then expulsion."
The Liberal leader reiterated his past comments about the Coalition leader, some of which he used during Monday's debate.
"Legault doesn't talk about immigrants in a positive light," Couillard said. "But these people help Quebec."
Earlier on Tuesday, a Montreal-based research institute released a report revealing immigrants are having an easier time finding work and more of them are choosing to remain in the province.
The study said the unemployment rate for immigrants between the ages of 25 and 54 has declined dramatically since January, from 8.1 per cent to six per cent in August, and that 84 per cent of newcomers who arrived in Quebec in 2010 were still in the province by 2015.
Legault has often stated an older statistic indicating one-quarter of immigrants who arrive to Quebec eventually leave the province.
The study also revealed, however, immigrants who have arrived in the province in the past five years and who are between 25 and 54 are having a more difficult time finding work, as their unemployment rate is at a stubborn 14 per cent, compared to 9.3 per cent in Ontario.
Also on Tuesday, two polls were released that indicated the Coalition's support was tending downward.
Mainstreet Research released a poll conducted Sept. 14-15 that surveyed 1,665 Quebecers, indicating the Coalition was at 29.1 per cent and the Liberals at 28.6 per cent.
The Parti Quebecois came in third at 21.5 per cent and Quebec solidaire had 17.1 per cent in the poll, which had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
A new Leger poll that surveyed 3,017 Quebecers between Sept. 14-17 who participated in the company's online panel, put the Coalition at 31 per cent and the Liberals at 30 per cent. The PQ finished with 21 per cent and Quebec solidaire at 14 per cent.
Tuesday was a difficult day for Legault.
He was incapable of naming the only Canadian province that is officially bilingual.
After he tried to avoid answering, he told reporters, "I'll take that (question) into deliberation."
A reporter then told him the correct answer: New Brunswick.
Earlier on Tuesday, PQ Leader Jean-Francois Lisee reiterated his party's position on immigration, saying only those who already speak French should be admitted into the province.
He said it is possible to fill job vacancies across Quebec and at the same time ensure newcomers speak French.
There are 270 million people around the world who speak French, he said east of Montreal.
"It's possible to find tens of thousands of those people per year to come here."
Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story; a previous version said the study was conducted by Quebec's statistics bureau