Angst around French language boils over in Quebec, as politicians warn of 'decline'

Quebec French in peril?

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.

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