Analysis

Justin Trudeau's language 'misstep' in Sherbrooke could have political fallout

Justin Trudeau's town hall meeting in Sherbrooke Tuesday was to be a chance to reconnect with voters. His decision to reply to an English speaker's question in French lit a fire under defenders of anglophone rights which could have political consequences for him.

CBC's Nancy Wood puzzles over how prime minister could have been so insensitive to Anglo constituents

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a town hall in Sherbrooke, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's town hall meeting in Sherbrooke Tuesday night was supposed to be a chance for him to reconnect with voters, to use his charisma to overcome the inevitable disenchantment that comes after more than a year in power.

Instead, the way he decided to respond to some people in the audience could have political consequences for him in the next election.

Trudeau was asked a question about the difficulties anglophones in the Eastern Townships have in getting mental health services. He responded in French, without translation: "We are in Quebec, so I will answer in French."

He was asked other questions, one by a refugee from Afghanistan, who has learned some English, but no French yet. Again, Trudeau answered exclusively in French.

Both instances were particularly poignant examples of how Trudeau does not seem to grasp the importance of official bilingualism, ironic since the Official Languages Act was one of the cornerstones of his father's government in 1969.

And it stunned many English-speaking Quebecers.

"Even staunch defenders of the French language, like René Lévesque, would never have made such a misstep," said James Shea, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, which represents English community organizations in the province.

"We're wondering actually if this is representative of a policy change that may be coming along at the federal government level, and it's quite concerning," said Rachel Hunting, executive director of Townshippers' Association, which represents anglophones in the Eastern Townships.

"English speakers have been in touch with our organization … to express their concerns and their feelings."

'I will always defend bilingualism': Trudeau

Trudeau tried to clarify his position on bilingualism the morning after the event.

"The fact is when I was in Peterborough a few days ago, I took a question in French and answered it in English," Trudeau said Wednesday. 

"I will always defend official bilingualism, I believe deeply in it, but I also understand the importance of speaking French, of defending the French language in Quebec, and that is something I will continue to do, while respecting minority language rights across the country."

Asked again about the incident, Trudeau backed down, saying he could have included some English in his answer.

Anglos hurt, angry

The fact that his performance in Sherbrooke has made waves points to the sensitivity of the language issue in this province.

Quebec anglophones do not seem mollified by Trudeau's explanation, either.

"It was not the kind of apology we would expect after such a significant statement had been made, and it's not an apology that many members of the community felt satisfied with," said the Townshippers' Hunting.

New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province. (The three federal territories — Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut — also recognize both English and French as official languages, in addition to regional Indigenous languages.) 

The other provinces are officially English, except for Quebec. Its sole official language is French.

However, federal institutions in Quebec remain bilingual. You can be served in English at Revenue Canada or at the passport office. And there is no greater personification of the federal government than its leader, the prime minister.

No one could have faulted Trudeau for answering a question in English, especially in the Eastern Townships, a region of Quebec with a long history of English settlement.

When you go to a hospital, and you're in pain, you may need a blood test, but you certainly don't need a language test.- Former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard

Even former Parti Québécois leaders have taken pains to address English-language Quebecers in their own language.

Think of Lucien Bouchard's famous Centaur Theatre speech in 1996, written by Jean-François Lisée, the current PQ leader.

Speaking in English, Bouchard insisted that anglophones have a right to health services in their own language.

"When you go to a hospital, and you're in pain, you may need a blood test," said Bouchard, "but you certainly don't need a language test."

So, why did Trudeau refuse to speak English?

There are three possible explanations to this baffling question.

Oblivious to Anglo needs?

The first, and least likely, is that he is oblivious to the needs of the English-speaking community.

Trudeau comes from a generation of Quebec anglophones that are, more than any earlier generation, bilingual. (Though his name may be French, Trudeau has admitted he's more rooted in English and has had to work on perfecting his French in his current role.)  

But he didn't grow up in a vacuum, and surely he realizes that for some anglophones, especially older ones — including those in his highly diverse riding of Papineau — French remains a challenge.

It's a challenge they don't want to grapple with when it comes to health care.  And when it comes to mental health services, it's even more critical to have access to resources in one's mother tongue.

Trudeau, whose own family has been outspoken about the critical importance of mental health services, could be expected to have been more sensitive to the issue.

Meaning of official bilingualism

The second possibility seems impossible to entertain, but let's look at it for the sake of argument: 

Could Trudeau not understand minority language rights? Or the meaning of official bilingualism in Canada? Or the difference between institutional bilingualism (something Quebec eschews) and personal bilingualism (which every Quebec premier has lauded)?

Since Trudeau campaigned in Quebec in both languages, this, too, seems unlikely.

A calculated electoral gamble?

The third and most likely answer is that Trudeau has calculated he needs to appeal to more francophones if he wants to hold onto or expand his Quebec base.

To do that, he needs to woo francophones who would not naturally turn to a federalist leader — especially the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the man who patriated the constitution without Quebec's approval in 1982.

Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard arrrives at the Centaur Theatre to talk to members of the English-speaking community in Montreal, Quebec March 11, 1996. (Robert Galbraith/Canadian Press)

Refusing to speak English when addressing anglophones in Quebec could be part of that strategy.

If that is the case, it is a gamble that may backfire. It assumes that anglophone voters' support can be taken for granted.  

However, unlike at the provincial level, where English-speaking federalists feel they have no choice but to vote Liberal, those same voters will have other choices in the next federal election. Both the NDP and the Conservatives will have new leaders.

Depending on how significant voters feel this incident is, and how willing they are to accept his half-apology, Trudeau could see Liberal support erode.

Language may often be fodder for political gamesmanship in Quebec, but — especially when it comes to health care — Trudeau might be wise to take a page from Lucien Bouchard.

To quote the former PQ premier once again from his Centaur speech: "Both the Anglo community and the individuals who make it up have rights, they have institutions, dignity, and strength that the government of Quebec will protect and preserve."

Trudeau may find he needs to make clear that he and his government are just as willing to protect and preserve the rights of anglophone Quebecers and their institutions.

About the Author

Nancy Wood

Journalist

Nancy Wood is a veteran reporter and the host of Montreal News at 11.