Quebec's immigration and labour minister claims that newcomers to the province "go to Montreal, don't work, and don't speak French," though he later tweeted he expressed "his thoughts badly."

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) candidate for Trois-Rivières and favourite to maintain the seat, Jean Boulet, made the comments when he was asked about his portfolio during a debate on Radio-Canada.

He said there are two challenges with immigration: the economy and the vitality of the French language.

"Eighty per cent of immigrants go to Montreal, don't work, don't speak French, and don't adhere to the values of Quebec," he said. "The key is regionalization and francization."

Boulet remains minister of labour, immigration and francization minister though the National Assembly is not in session. He added the CAQ government has set up nine regional directors to help immigrants settle in Quebec, learn French, and assimilate into the province.

He later walked back his comments on Twitter saying he expressed "his thoughts badly."

"The excerpt broadcast does not reflect what I think," he said. "We must continue to focus on the reception, francization and integration of immigrants, which are an asset for Quebec."

Immigrant and refugee worker Rivka Augenfeld is mystified why a minister with ample information would make a statement she said is simply untrue.

"It's ridiculous," said Augenfeld, a spokesperson for TCRI, which represents Quebec immigration and refugee community organizations. "A, it's not true. I don't know where it comes from and the minister of immigration should have better facts, better information, better statistics than anyone else."

She added that there are immigrants and refugees in Trois-Rivières, Que. that have contributed to the life of the city.

"There's a lot of support for the people who are actually there," said Augenfeld. "I don't know what this is about. It's very mysterious to see why you would take a stab and be so mean about people who are good people." 

Marjorie Villefranche, secretary of the Maison d'Haiti group, also said CAQ leader François Legault was equally dismissive of non-francophone newcomers to Quebec when he said they were a threat to Quebecers' way of life

"Mr. Legault disqualified himself too when he said Quebec is in jeopardy due to immigrants coming and not speaking French," Villefranche said. "It's not the responsibility of the immigrants to save French language. It's the responsibility of francophones to do that work."

While speaking at the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, Legault argued 56 per cent of Montreal works in French, stating it would be "suicide" to accept more than 50,000 immigrants a year.

Legault tied immigration to "violence" and "extremism" earlier in the campaign before walking the comments back.

A few days later, he then told a campaign crowd that non-French-speaking immigration threatens "national cohesion" in the province.

Liberal (PLQ) director of communications Jeremy Ghio snapped back at Boulet's comments on Twitter.

"Really? @JeanBoulet10?" he wrote. "Unacceptable and unworthy remarks. Diversity is not a threat, but one of our greatest assets." 

The Liberal party is proposing increasing immigration thresholds to 70,000.

Leader Dominique Anglade has called for Boulet to be removed from his post as Immigration Minister immediately

Québec Solidaire (QS) Co-Spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said he was flabbergasted that Legault would use the term to describe increasing immigration.

QS is proposing increasing the immigration threshold to between 60,000 and 80,000.

"Suicide is killing yourself," Nadeau-Dubois wrote on Twitter. "François Legault believes that welcoming more immigrants is the death of the Quebec nation. That's what he said. These are hurtful, rude and irresponsible comments."

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante weighed in on the issue, asking Boulet to withdraw his comments.

"Montreal is a land of welcome for immigrants, who contribute to the economic, social, and cultural vitality and to the dynamism of French," she said on Twitter.

Statistics Canada's most recent report on Quebec immigration states that between 2011 and 2016, Quebec received 215,170 immigrants.

Of those, 179,270 (83 per cent) went to Montreal.

The most immigrants during that period came from France (20,030), followed by Haiti (16,875), Algeria (16,380) and Morocco (13,480).

Cameroon (7,555) and Tunisia (5,850) are also on the list, along with non-French speaking countries China (10,705), Colombia (7,540), Iran (7,505) and Syria (7,460).