As new language law takes effect, Legault comment on speaking French at home sparks heated debate

In a heated exchange at the National Assembly, the Liberal MNA for Laval-des-Rapides made an impassioned plea for Quebec Premier François Legault to retract his statement about French being under threat because of the number of people speaking it at home. 

As Bill 96 is given royal assent, MNAs criticize Legault's comments on immigration

Saul Polo, the Quebec Liberal MNA for Laval-des-Rapides, said Premier François Legault went too far in justifying Bill 96 by pointing to the languages Quebecers speak at home. (Radio-Canada)

In a heated exchange at the National Assembly, Saul Polo, the Liberal MNA for Laval-des-Rapides, made an impassioned plea for Quebec Premier François Legault to retract his statement about French being under threat because of the proportion of Quebecers speaking it at home. 

"Based on the premier's vision, I should be leaving my identity at the airport as soon as I get off the plane," said Polo, who was born in Colombia.

"Go tell the Armenian community, who's been here for five generations and fled a genocide, go tell the Lebanese community, which fled civil wars, the Cambodian community, the Colombian community — who don't have French as a first language — that we represent a threat to French." 

Legault said Wednesday morning that French was in decline as a language spoken at home, as well as in other parts of society, and that he would like to better track and measure the use of French in society. 

Bill 96, the government's overhaul of the Charter of the French language, was given royal assent Wednesday and officially became law. On May 13, 78 MNAs voted in favour of the bill and 29 voted against.

Polo said he took issue with Legault's assertion because it delved too deeply into people's private lives, and because it suggested immigrants who don't speak French at home are a threat to the language. 

The debate took place during question period at the National Assembly Wednesday and also touched on immigration, the labour shortage and global warming. It involved MNAs from several different parties and ignited discussion about what statistics can and cannot say about the state of a language.

This weekend, at a Coalition Avenir Québec convention, Legault said he wanted to demand more immigration powers from Ottawa.

In practice, that would mean Quebec being able to select immigrants coming to the province through Canada's family reunification program. In 2021, 14,000 people came to Quebec through the program.

Legault said 51 per cent of them already spoke French, but that he wanted that number to be higher.

Minister of the French Language Simon Jolin-Barrette said the CAQ is protecting and promoting French. (Radio-Canada)

The premier said it was a question of the survival of the French language in the province, pointing to the state of Louisiana as an example of a place that used to be predominantly French-speaking but no longer is, surrounded by a nearly monolithically English-speaking country.

The speech, in which Legault asked for a "strong mandate" from Quebecers in the fall provincial election, provided a glimpse into what his campaign could look like.

Jeers erupt in debate

Polo said Quebec has a labour shortage and should be increasing the number of immigrants it accepts through programs that lead to permanent residency, such as economic immigration and family reunification.

"The premier tried to defend his example of the supposed threat of non-French-speaking immigration on the French language by comparing Quebec to Louisiana," Polo said. 

Simon Jolin-Barrette, who was named Minister of the French Language Wednesday, fought back, defending the premier. 

Jeers erupted as both Jolin-Barrette and Polo spoke. At one point, the Speaker of the National Assembly, François Paradis, said he was on the verge of suspending the session.

"Quebec is one of the most open and welcoming societies in the world, but in Quebec we must welcome people who migrate here in French. The Liberals neglected French when they were in power," Jolin-Barrette said. 

"Have pride in the French language, defend it and value it!"

Legault spoke up and cited a statistic that found less than 60 per cent of Montrealers use mostly French at work.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the co-spokesperson for Québec Solidaire, said Legault's comments about demanding more control over immigration in Quebec are a political strategy to distract from other issues. (Radio-Canada)

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the co-spokesperson of Québec Solidaire, chimed in, saying Legault was campaigning on fear. 

"The cost of living is suffocating. We're living a historic housing crisis. Homes are unaffordable. The health system is in ruins. Global warming is pummeling us," Nadeau-Dubois said. 

"So, I can understand the premier for inventing an imaginary threat. I understand him for pointing the finger at immigrants. It's the electoral strategy of politicians who don't have plans for society."


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

With files from Cathy Senay