QUEBEC – The Quebec government has introduced a new initiative that encourages cabinet ministers to speak only French to their counterparts from other provinces and Ottawa.
The strategy is part of the Parti Quebecois’ plan to push its sovereigntist agenda and prevent what it sees as intrusions by Ottawa in Quebec’s jurisdictions.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier told a news conference Wednesday that Quebec’s initiative to limit English usage by its ministers is only a guideline, not a restriction.
“The official language in Quebec is French and all the papers being prepared are in French, all documentation is in French, and we think it’s necessary to use the same language that it is written (in),” Cloutier said in Quebec City.
The French-only guideline, Cloutier added, refers to exchanges by Quebec cabinet and deputy ministers during ministerial meetings. Ministers, he said, are free to use English in letters and during informal chats with their Canadian counterparts.
Cloutier said ministers may explain subjects in English with their anglophone counterparts when they see fit.
Quebec also announced the creation of a $1.5-million commission to study the impacts of the Harper government’s employment-insurance reform, which Cloutier said was imposed on Quebecers without their consultation.
The Marois government has appointed former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and ex-PQ cabinet minister Rita Dionne-Marsolais as the commission’s co-presidents. PQ Labour Minister Agnes Maltais insisted the process will be “neutral,” even though it will be headed by two former sovereigntist politicians.
Cloutier said similar tools could be used in the future to examine other areas where the PQ believes the federal government has encroached on the province’s jurisdiction.
He pledged to push legal boundaries wherever possible to ensure Quebec jurisdictions are protected from federal government involvement and to reduce overlaps with Ottawa.
“We don’t want to raise the level of hostility, we want to defend Quebecers and workers,” said Cloutier, a constitutional lawyer educated at the University of Cambridge, in Britain.
“But (at) the same time I would just say to Ottawa: ‘respect the law, respect the Constitution and stop acting in Quebec’s field and stop acting in ways that are affecting our economy’.”
He said Canada’s “paternalistic” brand of federalism is still alive under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Harper government responded to the PQ’s announcements Wednesday by saying it has created a job-creating plan while the Marois government has a sovereignty plan.
“We are not interested in old fights,” Transport Minister Denis Lebel said in a statement.
On the issue of language, a Harper spokesman said provincial governments have the freedom to choose whether they want to communicate with Ottawa in French or English.
The PQ delivered a forceful message in its platform during last year’s provincial election campaign, pledging to pick fights with the federal government.
The party announced it would make attempts to take over federal powers such as income-tax collection. PQ members boldly stated that, if Ottawa refused any request, it would bolster their case for sovereignty.
But the PQ toned down its ambitions after it won a minority mandate in the September election.
– With files from Alexandre Robillard in Quebec City and Andy Blatchford in Montreal