MONTREAL — Perennial anxieties around the state of the French language in Quebec have boiled over in the past week, with politicians seizing on a Liberal legislator's initial brush-off of the issue as evidence of indifference to a crisis.
Outside of Quebec, the angry debate may have seemed a tempête in a teapot, if it appeared on anglophones' radar at all.
But in la belle province and Ottawa, Montreal MP Emmanuella Lambropoulos set off alarms when she asked the official languages commissioner in a House of Commons committee meeting last week — Friday the 13th — whether French was in peril.
“I have to see proof in order to believe that," Ms. Lambropoulos told Raymond Théberge at the official languages committee. "What exactly do you think contributes to this 'decline' of French in Quebec?" she asked, using air quotes around the word "decline."
The 30-year-old parliamentarian’s skepticism prompted a week's worth of censures from Bloc Québécois MPs as well as Conservative ones.
While Lambropoulos reversed her comments in a statement less than 24 hours afterward, calling them "insensitive" and acknowledging that French is in decline, the walk-back did little to satisfy opposition members.
"She probably said out loud what many of them do think," Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet told reporters, referring to the Liberal caucus.
“The next time Justin Trudeau claims to defend the French language, remember the questions he asks his Quebec MPs to pose at the official languages committee," Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said on Twitter.
Adding fuel to the inferno were reports of a recent tweet — since deleted — by Chelsea Craig, the Quebec director of the federal Liberal party, that referred to the province's 43-year-old language law, in English, as "oppressive" and "ruinous."
She too recanted with a tweet — this time in French — that stressed the importance of Quebec's French-language charter, commonly known as Bill 101, and the downward trajectory of the language.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to douse the blaze in the House on Wednesday
“We recognize that, in order for Canada to be bilingual, Quebec must first and foremost be francophone. That is why we support Bill 101 in what it does for Quebec," he said, backing legislation his prime-minister father vociferously opposed.
On Thursday, Lambropoulos extended her "deepest apologies" to all those offended, and offered to step down from the official languages committee. But the temperature remains high in the House, which will now debate the state of French in on Wednesday.
Language issues in Quebec have been simmering for the past year.
The expression "Bonjour-Hi!" — long used by merchants to greet customers in Montreal stores — sparked a political controversy last year, though the National Assembly ultimately backed down on a ban against the bilingual salute.
In February, the Bloc introduced a bill that would require anyone applying for Canadian citizenship in Quebec to demonstrate functional proficiency in French. Seizing an opportunity, Blanchet brought the bill to the floor for debate Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Quebec government is trying to extend Bill 101 to federally regulated businesses such as banks and Via Rail in a proposal that would see French become the mandatory language for all companies in the province with more than 50 employees.
Concerns around the declining use of French have at least a foothold in fact. The proportion of Quebecers speaking only French at home declined to 71.2 per cent in 2016 from 72.8 per cent in 2011, according to Statistics Canada.
However, the percentage of the province's people who spoke French — but not necessarily exclusively — at home rose marginally over the same period.
"You can find data to suit whatever thesis you have. But a lot of it is based on a knee-jerk reaction to walking into a downtown store and being served in English or getting the dreaded ‘Bonjour-Hi,' " said Christian Bourque, executive vice-president at the Léger polling firm.
He said politicians are beating the language drum at least as much for political gain as genuine concern.
"If you’re the Bloc Québécois, the whole issue of the French language should be the bone that you gnaw on every time you have a chance."
The urge to rev nationalist engines may be more appealing with the possibility of a federal election in the spring, which could explain why Conservatives — who compete with the Bloc for the same Quebec ridings — have chimed in so loudly.
Support for full-blown sovereignty is weak, with the Parti Québécois at one of the lowest points in its history, ranking fourth of four parties in the National Assembly. And language tensions rarely draw countrywide attention comparable to the debates of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when luminaries such as Mordecai Richler railed against the "language police" and the New York Times ran headlines reporting that "Quebec's Language Law Puts Companies to Flight."
Nonetheless, cultural identity in the distinct society remains both a sensitive issue and a point of pride.
"Survival of the French language was part and parcel of why the sovereignty movement even existed," Bourque said.
“If you want to blow on the embers of some form of nationalistic sentiment, but you know you can't bring up sovereignty because it’s not really popular, you might as well bring up the French language."
Robert Wright, author of "Trudeaumania" and "The Night Canada Stood Still" — about Pierre Trudeau's rise to power and the 1995 referendum, respectively — stressed the political charge that language carries for Quebecers in a way that often eludes the rest of Canada.
"It just goes to show you that it’s always lurking in our politics," said Wright, a history professor at Ontario's Trent University.
"You can count on it having a greater salience than other issues would have because it taps into these deep issues of culture and identity and belonging."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2020.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press