The Two Faces of Francois Legault

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Quebec’s premier is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he is increasingly worried about the rising fortunes of the separatist Parti Quebecois after that party’s decisive victory in a recent Quebec City byelection.[i] On the other hand, as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and former business mogul, he hates to spend money, especially government money. So he definitely does not want to have to bribe Quebecers with their own tax dollars, for example by creating attractive, shiny new government programs, if he can possibly help it. (Besides, he already tried that with the Levis/Quebec City tunnel promise and that crashed and burned.)

So what to do? The answer, it seems, is to go on the warpath once more in defence of Quebec’s “distinct culture” and more specifically the French language. It costs nothing and reliably gets the positive attention of the voters he needs to keep happy in order to stay in power. Having already tackled the issue of French in the workplace in the controversial Bill 96, Legault is now posing as the defender of the French language from threats posed by – wait for it – anglophone university students from the rest of Canada.

His plan was simple. Raise tuition fees so high that most of these students (almost all of whom attend the three English language universities in the province) will no longer choose Quebec for their higher education. Almost as an afterthought, he also included dramatic tuition hikes for international students, despite the fact that Quebec actually has specific incentive programs to attract students from France and other French-speaking countries.

At the same time, as the premier made clear when announcing his new plan, he perversely, (indeed inexplicably), appeared to believe it would also raise substantive additional funds that he could then pass on to underfunded French language universities in the province, a win-win situation.

Unfortunately for him, this poorly thought out plan is proving to be a very hard sell. It also has already had many unanticipated consequences. As countless academics, journalists and even the leadership of the Quebec business community have pointed out, there are two major problems with M. Legault’s scheme. Since it was announced out of the blue, with no consultation with those affected, this is hardly surprising. And since it is supposed to take effect almost immediately, in 2024, it is also unsurprising that these consequences have become obvious almost immediately.

First, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the premier’s claim that anglophone students from the rest of Canada do pose a threat to the dominance of French in the province or Montreal. In fact, there is little evidence of any kind to suggest the French language is actually threatened, and much in recent Statistics Canada reports to suggest it is thriving.[ii] Of course he can always choose to ignore this reality. There is absolutely no need to let the facts get in the way of a good political ploy.

The second problem is much harder to ignore, namely, that instead of extra revenue his plan will have significant costs for his government, the three universities affected, and the Quebec economy as a whole.  To begin with, the three English language universities affected (McGill, Concordia and Bishops) are heavily dependent on out-of-province and international students to balance their books, given the government’s serious underfunding of all postsecondary education. In the case of Bishops, this amounts to nearly half of their student body.[iii] The three university presidents estimated that if they lose only half of these students, they will see their revenue decline by tens of millions of dollars in the first year alone. Concordia president Graham Carr estimated the university will lose up to 10% of its operating budget, while Bishops warned it may have to declare bankruptcy. [iv] McGill’s credit rating and high international ranking are both considered to be at serious risk. And one major business organization warned “Quebec will be deprived of an important pool of skilled labour for years to come at a time when employers face a significant labour shortage.” (This shortage, of course, has already been exacerbated by Bill 96.)

As an immediate result, McGill and Concordia have already announced hiring freezes for all faculty and staff, cutbacks to several academic programs, and – ironically – the elimination of planned programs offering French language training to anglophone students. (To say nothing of the elimination of several recreational programs including highly successful football and basketball teams.)

Not surprisingly it is this second problem that is now causing M. Legault to bob and weave. In a breath-taking display of two-faced hypocrisy, the premier and his education minister, Pascale Déry, initially responded to these concerns by claiming that the huge fee increases would not cause students to go elsewhere. “They will come. I’m pretty sure they will still come”, she told a CBC interviewer. [v] This was despite the earlier and clearly stated objective of M. Legault that because there were “a bit too many” anglophones in town he aimed to reduce that number dramatically!  Apparently his motto should have been “if you raise fees, they will still come,” but then what happens to his threatened French language argument?

Ironically, it is already clear that Ms Déry was wrong and the premier’s original purpose was succeeding. A press release issued by Concordia pointed out that recruitment of students for 2024 had already begun in September of this year. “The government’s October announcement was obviously a major disruption to those activities. Talented students are already making decisions to go elsewhere, to the detriment of Montreal and Quebec.” Both Concordia and McGill have seen “catastrophic” declines in applications from outside the province, as well as an unprecedented number of rejections of their existing offers.[vi]

M. Legault is now trying desperately to keep those students coming after all. Having declared his drastic tuition hikes (from $9,000 to $$17,000) were perfectly reasonable, he is now backpedaling furiously. According to several reports, he is planning to exempt Bishops entirely from the hikes, and lower the fees from $17,000 to$12,000 for the others. But as McGill Deputy Provost Fabrice Labeau pointed out, this would still leave Quebec’s fees much higher than other provinces, particularly with respect to a standard Arts and Science degree, the most common choice of out-of-province students.  

If M. Legault has any sense, he will accept the fig leaf the three university leaders have offered him. As opposed to their own ill-considered first response, when they panicked and offered to make a raft of changes to their structure and course offerings, thereby handing the premier a gift on a silver platter by implying that he had a point, this time they have come up with a sensible plan to augment tuition fees somewhat. It would be based on the program of study, with the cost for the most common choice of out-of-province students far more in line with the cost of such programs elsewhere. In this three-tiered approach, Arts and Science students (roughly 80% of all out-of-province students in Quebec) would pay $9,000 per year while engineering and computer science students would pay $14,000 and medical and law students $20,000. [vii]

The premier should take the plan – and the money – and run.



[iii] Bishops (30% and 15%; McGill (20% and 30%) and Concordia (9% and 22%) For more detail see


[v] CBC Daybreak. October 19, 2023.


[vii] E. Anderssen. “Quebec universities send province a counteroffer.” Globe and Mail. December 11, 2023.