If Conservative MP Maxime Bernier began by poking the bear, now he’s jabbing it with a knife.
The former federal cabinet minister was quickly excoriated by Quebec politicians and pundits for his comments Friday saying Quebecers don’t need Bill 101, the province’s landmark language legislation.
But after the two-sentence throwaway remark to a Halifax radio station provoked a torrent of ridicule, Bernier responded defiantly Sunday with a 700-word statement on his personal blog.
In a post in both English and French, Bernier explained his opposition to the law that, in Quebec, has been considered sacrosanct by the political class for more than three decades.
The 1977 legislation, enacted under Premier Rene Levesque’s Parti Quebecois, limited English on street signs and restricted access to English public schools.
Bernier, an ardent libertarian, said while it’s important for Quebec to remain a predominantly French-language society, that shouldn’t be achieved by restricting people’s rights and freedom of choice.
“French will survive if Quebecers cherish it and want to preserve it; it will flourish if Quebec becomes a freer, more dynamic and prosperous society,” Bernier wrote.
“Not by imposing (French) and by preventing people from making their own decisions in matters that concern their personal lives.”
The historic legislation has often been credited with saving the French language from decline in the province and is rarely criticized by politicians.
In one exception, three anglophone ministers resigned from Premier Robert Bourassa’s cabinet in 1988 to protest a move that strengthened Quebec’s language laws in response to a Supreme Court ruling that struck down portions of Bill 101.
For the most part, though, Bill 101 has become as much a fixture in Quebec as the Health Canada Act and the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms have countrywide.
But Bernier said not everyone agrees the law is necessary.
“Whenever the issue of Bill 101 is raised, it is often claimed that ’there is a consensus in Quebec’ about it: apart from some extremist English-rights activists and traitors to Quebec, everybody is presumed to agree with Bill 101… But that consensus simply does not exist,” he wrote.
Still, as Bernier’s comments spread over the weekend, Quebec politicians and pundits lined up to denounce him and show their support for Bill 101.
Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois suggested Bernier should “come to Montreal more often,” where “anglicization is visible.”
Quebec Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre said everyone recognizes Bill 101 has “helped preserve the French language.”
Liberal MP Denis Coderre charged that Bernier’s thoughts on language laws make “Sarah Palin look like an intellectual.”
The online blowback from many Quebec residents was even more venomous, with many on Twitter and other social media reduced to name-calling.
In much of English Canada, however, Bernier’s remarks were greeted as a breath of fresh air.
“Good on Bernier…he was only saying what the majority of Canadians think,” said one typical online comment.
On his blog, Bernier expressed his disappointment at those who questioned his right to offer an opinion on the subject.
“In a free and democratic society, we should be able to say these things and debate them calmly without being pilloried,” he wrote.
“I did not expect to create such a storm by expressing my belief that we should let people act like free and responsible individuals, including when it comes to protecting their language, instead of relying on government coercion to do it for them.”
Pundits have suggested Bernier raised the issue to drum up support nationally for a possible leadership bid.
But the remarks aren’t likely to improve the Conservative party’s popularity in Quebec, where the Tories hold 11 seats and are eager to keep them in their quest for a majority.
Meanwhile, the Harper government has refused to wade into the debate, saying it “respects provincial jurisdiction.”
Heritage Minister James Moore said the federal government stands by its belief that Quebec has the right to set its own language laws.
“Maxime Bernier is a Quebecker,” he told reporters in Ottawa prior to a film screening.
“He is interested in engaging those based inside the province of Quebec. As far as the federal government is concerned, Bill 101 is provincial law.”