Conservative MP Apologizes After Requesting Bilingual Minister to Speak English

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Conservative MP for Lethbridge Rachael Thomas rises during Question Period, Friday, September 29, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Conservative MP Rachael Thomas faced criticism and subsequently apologized for requesting Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge to respond in English during a parliamentary committee meeting, as reported by various sources.

Incident Overview

During the House of Commons heritage committee meeting, Rachael Thomas, representing Lethbridge, asked Minister St-Onge, who is a francophone from Quebec, for an English response to her questions. Thomas noted, “Minister, I noticed that you answered my questions in French, but other questions you answered in English if they’re from your Liberal colleagues… if at all possible I’d love to have an English answer.”

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet says the disrespect shown toward the French language and Quebec ‘doesn’t surprise anybody in Quebec anymore.’

Backlash from Parliamentary Members

This request was met with immediate objections from NDP, Bloc, and Liberal MPs on the committee, who considered it an insult to francophones and Quebeckers. Bloc MP Martin Champoux emphasized that committees have efficient interpreters, and the minister has the right to choose her language of response. Liberal MP Michael Coteau stated that Thomas’s request “goes against everything this country has been built on.”

Conservative MP Rachael Thomas has been accused of trying to undermine bilingualism for asking Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge, a Francophone from Quebec, to provide English answers to her questions. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Thomas’s Apology

Following the backlash, Thomas issued a written apology to the committee chair, stating, “Conservatives support official bilingualism, the preservation of the French language in Canada and the right of Canadians to communicate in the language of their choice.”

Responses from Political Leaders

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and NDP MP Peter Julian expressed strong criticism. Blanchet referenced the poem “Speak White,” suggesting an attitude of superiority from English Canadians, while Julian described the incident as a radical and extreme shift in the Conservative party since Pierre Poilievre’s leadership.

After she was asked to speak in English by Alberta MP Rachael Thomas, Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said the request was ‘disrespectful to French people and Quebec people.’

Minister St-Onge’s and Committee Chair’s Responses

Minister St-Onge reaffirmed her right to speak in her mother tongue and labeled the incident inappropriate and disrespectful. Committee chair Hedy Fry reiterated that ministers are free to speak in their chosen language.

Constitutional Rights and Recent Controversies

The incident highlights the sensitivity around language rights in Canada, where French and English have equal status in government. It follows another recent controversy where Bloc MP Mario Simard accused Conservative MPs of violating his language rights.