This opinion piece written by QCGN President James Shea was published in the Montreal Gazette on Thursday April 27.
To err is most certainly human.
This week’s error in the National Assembly by Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister Martin Coiteux proved an extremely disappointing faux pas by a respected and influential political player. After all, this is a minister who has generally shown good openness to — and solid understanding of Quebec’s English-speaking community.
On behalf of its members and the community, the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) accepts the sincere apology Coiteux issued Wednesday. It is a step that we greet with an open mind and an open spirit. However, forgiveness in this instance should not and cannot be equated with forgetfulness.
Quebecers of all linguistic and political stripes have been provided with an important opportunity to re-learn a basic fact about the legal standing of English in this province. Only after all have absorbed this can we collectively turn the page and shift our attention to other important issues.
On Tuesday afternoon, Coiteux was asked, in English, by Quebec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir about a police probe into Liberal Party financing. The minister responded that he would stick to Assembly tradition, and answer in French.
To use the basic language of the street, Coiteux totally blew it.
As we at the QCGN immediately noted, this was an affront to his constituents and to more than 1 million English-speaking Quebecers, of whom some 210,000 live outside of the Montreal area.
Not only is English permitted in the Assembly, but the 1867 Constitution Act clearly states that French or English may be used in Assembly debate.
The gravity and import in the way Coiteux fumbled his initial response is compounded by the demographics of his West Island riding of Nelligan, which covers Pierrefonds-Roxboro, Île-Bizard-Sainte-Genevieve and Kirkland. A majority of his electors — some 44,980 — are English-speaking.
By taking the no-English path, Coiteux gave credence to a perilous myth: that English speakers have, under Quebec law, somehow been relegated to the sidelines in the democratic arena where our provincial laws are publicly debated and set into stone.
Precision matters. In an environment where the English-speaking community is already dealing with multiple challenges — and in a context where so many strategic issues are affecting the development and vitality of the English-speaking community of Quebec — it should be underscored that the use of English is an expression of the fundamental rule of law.
The negative symbolism of his error is surprising in several other ways. Most notably, it was very much out of character. After all, this is a minister who took his oath of office in both languages. Coiteux speaks English well.
Language in Quebec is always a very sensitive issue. Never before has his sensitivity to the concerns of English speakers had to be called into question.
Coiteux was first elected to the National Assembly in 2014. So the time frame makes it difficult to classify this as simply a rookie error.
In an interview with Global News last fall, Coiteux said that he moved to the West Island six years ago when he fell in love with an area resident, “and the most beautiful thing about it is that everybody lives in harmony.” Quite accurately, he also remarked that “there is a spirit of community, which really is something that is very special, very unique to the West Island.”
The English-language community of Quebec is also very special and unique. In a meeting with Premier Philippe Couillard last fall, we noted that our community faces a long list of challenges and that we do not always have good dialogue with our government partners.
The scarcity of English-speaking MNAs and government bureaucrats in Quebec City is an ongoing, serious issue and we need our leaders to understand and speak for our community.
Let this week’s incident, and the reaction to it, drive that message home.