During Jean Charest’s 14 years as Quebec Liberal leader, it is said he sermonized to his caucus the following piece of wisdom: the party cannot win an election on the language issue, but it can lose one on it.

In other words, it is wisest for Liberals on the campaign trail to simply stay away from language in general, since they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose.

Needless to say when Philippe Couillard, the current Liberal leader, entered last Thursday’s televised debate the perceived front-runner in the campaign, his meanderings on the topic caught many inside and outside the Liberal family by surprise.

In a nutshell, Couillard suggested workers in manufacturing plants should learn English as a second language, since it would be very practical when explaining a product to prospective buyers from the U.S. or Britain.

The statement is a jaw-dropper in Quebec politics, for a couple of reasons.

First, it does not reflect official Quebec Liberal Party policy, which endorses Bill 101 (the French Language Charter).

But more importantly, the remark stabs at the very heart of the whole language debate over the last 50 years in the province. Couillard could not have come up with a more insensitive example.

Quebec’s largest labour federation was quick to respond. In a communique, the FTQ draws attention to a strike at a GM car plant north of Montreal in 1970. Workers picketed for three months in order to make French the language on the shop floor instead of English.

Maîtres chez nous

In an impassioned response, the editor-in-chief of L'Actualité Carole Beaulieu wrote an open letter to Couillard. In it, she reminds Couillard of her father’s support for the Liberal party back in the 1960s, when the rallying cry of “Maîtres Chez Nous” triggered the Quiet Revolution, and the end of absolute English dominance in business and on factory floors.

Beaulieu wrote that years later, when premier Robert Bourassa passed the legislation which made French the only official language in Quebec, “her father was older, his hands stained black from toiling in engine grease, yet he went out glad-handing on behalf of the Liberals.”

In other words, even if the Liberals feel they can’t win elections on language anymore, a large part of their base, and an important piece of the party’s heritage is deeply anchored in the defence of francophones’ rights to use their mother tongue at work.

Couillard recovers

Clearly Couillard is trying to appeal to francophones who are lined up to get their children into intensive English programs. And he continues to repeat that knowing a second language is an asset.

However, it is plain to see he and his Liberal handlers had a chat about how to best couch that notion.

Obligating workers to speak English on the job “would have to be justified. The job in question would have to require the knowledge of a second language,” Couillard insisted in a press conference the day after the debate.

He went on to underscore a Liberal government would rigorously apply Bill 101, and work to promote and protect the French language in all spheres.

The PQ leader, Pauline Marois, continues to suggest Couillard is not prepared to lead Quebec, and has been urging him to “read up on the French Language Charter.”

But for all the potential damage Couillard’s remark could have caused to himself and his party, the Liberal leader seems to be coming away from this major misstep largely unscathed.