Bernier under fire for criticizing Quebec language laws
Published Monday, February 7, 2011 10:14PM EST
Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier came under fire from opposition MPs Monday for his comments that Quebec doesn't need legislation to protect the French language.
Bernier told a Halifax radio station on Friday that he doesn't support Bill 101, enacted in 1977, which declares French as Quebec's sole official language and gives the right to all Quebecers to receive communication in French. It also restricts access to English schools and regulates the use of English in public signage and other forums.
NDP MP Thomas Mulcair, who represents the Montreal riding of Outremont, said the law has been essential for ensuring that Francophones are able to obtain services in French, and urged the prime minister to "deal with this straight on."
"The prime minister has a responsibility in a country that has two official languages to stand up and say we've recognized Quebec as a nation, this is part of that identity, this is unacceptable. Bernier's gone," Mulcair told CTV's Power Play. "If Bernier stays there that's a message that Mr. Harper is sending that he actually agrees with him."
Liberal MP Marc Garneau called Bernier a "loose cannon "who has committed a "major, major blunder" by bringing up Bill 101, which is sacred to many Quebecers.
"I would strongly urge the prime minister to get up and to officially rebuke his MP Maxime Bernier," Garneau told Power Play. "That kind of signal needs to be sent to Quebec, and to Canada, that the prime minister is actually saying, ‘Look Max, you went way over the line here, you made a big mistake, we believe in Quebec's law 101.'"
Tory MP Greg Rickford dodged the question of Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly censuring Bernier, echoing comments made by Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis in question period earlier Monday that the language issue is a provincial matter, and the federal government supports bilingualism.
"This is a provincial piece of legislation and it falls squarely within provincial jurisdiction," Rickford told Power Play. "Mr. Bernier's comments in no way reflect the position of this federal government, and don't reflect the values of the Conservative Party. And I think we've been consistent with that."
Earlier Monday, Pablo Rodriguez, MP for Honore-Mercier, said during question period that Quebec has long struck a balance between respecting individual rights and preserving and promoting French, a legacy he said is now under attack by Bernier.
"In 1996, the prime minister said that the language policy in Quebec ran counter to human rights. In 2002, he said that Quebec's language policy prevented Francophones from being bilingual. Now his dauphin is saying this and he refuses to scold him," Rodriguez told the House in French. "Is it that the prime minister didn't understand, or is it that he just agrees?"
None of the party leaders, including Harper, attended question period, so it was left to Paradis to evade the question.
Paradis said the government respects that language issues are a provincial matter, and went on to say that "we do have constitutional peace and if we have it, it's thanks to the leadership of our prime minister and the Conservative government."
Bernier made his comments during an interview with Halifax's News 95.7, in which he was asked about whether governments have a role to play in helping build a national identity.
In a blog post published after the interview, Bernier said he replied that "people know who they are and that it's not the government's role to create and protect a national identity. I used Quebec as an example and said that we don't need Bill 101 to protect the French language."
Bernier also denied claims that the majority of Quebecers support the bill, citing a Leger Marketing poll conducted last year that showed 66 per cent of Quebecers, including 61 per cent of francophones, agree that people in the province should be free to choose the language in which they obtain their education.
"French will survive if Quebecers cherish it and want to preserve it; it will flourish if Quebec becomes a freer, more dynamic and prosperous society; it will thrive if we make it an attractive language that newcomers want to learn and use," Bernier wrote. "Not by imposing it and by preventing people from making their own decisions in matters that concern their personal lives."
In his blog post, Bernier was clear that Bill 101 "is a provincial issue" and that his views do not involve the Conservative party or federal government.
On Monday, Quebec Premier Jean Charest said he believes there is a consensus among Quebecers over Bill 101.
"The context is such in Quebec that Bill 101 is necessary to preserve the French language and, on this opinion, I'm not the only one," Charest told reporters.
"Mr. Bernier should note that there's a strong consensus that doesn't reflect his opinion."
Charest said French is more than a language to Quebecers, and is part of the province's identity.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe also criticized Bernier's comments, accusing the Conservative MP of trying to win supporters in other regions of Canada.
In his blog, Bernier said he was shocked by the firestorm that followed his comments, given that he was "expressing my belief that we should let people act like free and responsible individuals, including when it comes to protecting their language, instead of relying on government coercion to do it for them."
Gerry Nicholls, former vice president of the National Citizens Coalition, said Bernier's comments should open a new debate on Quebec's language laws, which he said are "Draconian, anti-English and infringe on basic individual freedoms."
"Rather than condemning Mr. Bernier, we should be praising him as a politician who is willing to stand up for his convictions and for his principles," Nicholls said.
With files from The Canadian Press