Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Trudeau Says He 'Maybe' Could Have Spoken Some English When Asked Questions

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Trudeau Says He 'Maybe' Could Have Spoken Some English When Asked Questions

Article excerpt

Trudeau on the hot seat amid language controversy

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MONTREAL - Quebec's deep-rooted linguistic tensions flared up in unlikely fashion Wednesday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to explain why he refused to answer questions in English at a town hall meeting.

The controversy erupted when Trudeau answered English questions in French on Tuesday night -- including one about how English speakers could get help to gain access to mental health services.

"Thank you for using our country's two official languages, but since we're in Quebec I'll respond in French," Trudeau told a woman at a town hall meeting in Sherbrooke.

His unilingual performance drew an angry response from groups that represent Quebec anglophones, with some calling on the prime minister to apologize for showing what they called disrespect toward the English speakers in the audience.

At first, Trudeau defended his stance when grilled about it at a news conference Wednesday as he continued his grassroots tour. He pointed out he answered a French question in English at a recent town hall meeting in Peterborough, Ont.

But Trudeau changed his tune a few minutes later when a reporter revisited the topic.

Asked whether the English-speaking people in the audience Tuesday night did not deserve to understand him, he replied: "I understand how important it is in these public meetings to be able to answer questions about people's concerns."

"So, yes, I maybe could have answered partly in English and partly in French and, on reflection, it would have been a good thing to do," he said.

About 80 per cent of Quebecers report French as their mother tongue, with most English-speakers concentrated in the Montreal area.

It is customary for political speeches in Quebec to be mostly in French, while it is generally accepted that francophone reporters get to ask their questions first at news conferences.

Other than being briefly booed for speaking English at a Fete nationale celebration in Quebec City last year, the fluently bilingual Trudeau has thus far largely avoided the language controversies that have dogged previous prime ministers, including his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

His party made strong gains in Quebec in the 2015 election, winning 40 of the province's 78 seats. Many ridings with a high percentage of French-speaking voters still remain out of reach for the Liberals, who fare well in areas with significant anglophone representation.

But on Wednesday, Trudeau faced rare heat from some members of that English-speaking community.

Judy Ross, the woman who asked Trudeau the question about mental health, said she "felt disrespected" when he explained why he would only answer in French.

"I was so disappointed that by the time he got through that bit of fantasy land, I really didn't take in the rest," Ross said in an interview. "I was too miffed.

"It (mental health) is a topic that's very difficult to explain and express in your own language, let alone a second language. …

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