During Tuesday evening’s ‘town hall’ discussion held at the Armoury in Sherbrooke, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted to speak in French only, despite the fact that more than half the questions that evening were posed in English.
The reaction from Anglo Townshippers was of anger and disappointment.
Adding insult to injury, the first question Trudeau was asked in English was regarding minority language rights.
Judy Ross, founder of Mental Health Estrie asked the following question:
“Since the inception of the national health plan some 50 years ago, funding for psychiatry / mental health services have been grossly underfunded compared to the other areas of health care. Your attempt to link mental health and home care to the supplementary funding offered to the Provinces is commendable.
Of particular concern in this area is the lack of services to the minority population. Most of the public services are available in French only.
I would appreciate your comment on this subject.”
Trudeau drew attention to the first English question, giving a nod to both official languages, and continued with, “Since I’m in Quebec, I’ll answer in French.”
He then went on to transform his answer into a comment about official languages and bilingualism.
After the meeting, The Record asked Ross if she felt satisfied with the PM’s answer.
“No I did not,” she said, especially since her question related specifically to minority language rights. Ross added after the event that she wasn’t even sure she understood what Trudeau’s answer to her question was.
At a press conference the following morning, The Record asked the PM to explain why he couldn’t answer a single question in English.
“The fact is, when I was in Peterborough a few days ago, I took a question in French and answered in English,” Trudeau replied, suggesting it was a demonstration of his belief in and defense of bilingualism.
Simply put, the Prime Minister, in support of bilingualism and minority language rights, addressed the town hall audience in Sherbrooke unilingually, and in the language of the majority, and he did it deliberately.
Later in the conference, Trudeau was pressed by a French reporter who asked, “Are you saying that the Francophone in Peterborough didn’t deserve to understand your answer, and the Anglophone last night in Sherbrooke didn’t deserve to understand the answer; did you realize she didn’t understand your answer?”
Trudeau at that point recognized his misstep.
“Maybe I should have answered partly in English, partly in French,” he said. “In retrospect, it would have been a good thing to do,” Trudeau said, explaining that his preoccupation is always to take the most questions possible, and in Quebec, it’s ‘the language of Molière’ that takes first place. While sensitive to the concerns of minority language communities, the PM said he decided in principle to hold the Sherbrooke town hall in French, but said that next time he would include more bilingualism.
Despite the modest back step at Wednesday’s press conference, Townshippers’ Association (TA) and the Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) both sent out press releases expressing their extreme disappointment with the Prime Minister’s actions, and demanded an apology.
“It was a combination of enormous shock and disappointment,” said TA President Gerald cutting the morning after the town hall meeting.
“He didn’t give one word in his opening or closing remarks,” Cutting said, “I think the entire English community is spinning.”
Cutting wondered if Trudeau’s choice to exclude English demonstrated a policy change. He expressed that concern in a TA press release sent out yesterday.
“In light of Prime Minister Trudeau’s response to an English-speaker at the Sherbrooke town hall and his refusal to answer a Franco-Ontarian at an event in Peterborough, we have to question if this signals major policy changes to the duality of Canada’s official languages,” the statement read. “If all Canadians are equal then at least we deserve an answer in our own language.”
“I think he owes the entire community a clarification and a sincere apology,” commented Cutting.
When asked what actions TA planned to take, Cutting said the organization was collaborating with QCGN to request a meeting, a clarification and an apology from Trudeau.
A QCGN press release sent out yesterday demanded an immediate apology and a meeting with the PM.
“We are shocked, disappointed and utterly dismayed that the Prime Minister could be so tone deaf,” QCGN Vice-President Geoffrey Chambers was quoted as saying.
“Does this signal a change in policy or attitude towards Quebec’s English-speaking minority?” wondered QCGN President James Shea.
“This is a repudiation of almost a half century of work in official languages and we need reassurances that this does not signal something deeper and more threatening to our community,” stated Chambers.
The Wednesday morning press conference was held in the lobby of Centennial Theatre on the Bishop’s University campus.
Principal Michael Goldbloom attended the conference and spoke with The Record after.
“I think he made a mistake,” Goldbloom said, regarding Trudeau’s decision not to answer English questions at the town hall in English.
“I would have preferred that he answer, in particular, English questions in English,” Goldbloom said. “I was pleased today that he recognized that.”
“I think he explained himself and indicated that he would do it differently next time,” commented Goldbloom.
Between 9-10 a.m. the Prime Minister mingled with students at the Tim Horton’s on campus, sitting down and chatting with the students.
“He’s extraordinarily popular,” Goldbloom said, pleased the PM made the decision to visit the campus. “He spent time with the students. You’ve got to give him credit for coming,” he added.