Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Members of the National Assembly stand for a minute of silence in honour of victims of the COVID-19 pandemic at the legislature in Quebec City on June 12, 2020.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

It was no “Slinky Head” or “gang of eunuchs,” but it was bad enough.

When the government House Leader Simon Jolin-Barrette rose in Quebec’s National Assembly last month and suggested that a Liberal opponent was a complotiste, or conspiracy theorist, the word suffered the same fate as those more colourful insults. It was hauled off in irons and thrown on the official list of unparliamentary expressions.

The alleged conspiracist couldn’t respond that he had been “Jolin-Barretted,” although he had: that slur was also declared unparliamentary last year, after a deputy coined it to describe a rushed reform. Nor could the offended party retort with goon or loser, or with comparisons to the comedy duo Ding et Dong or the village idiot figure Ti-coune.

There are about 400 things he couldn’t have said, all covered by the “index,” as it’s known – an ever-expanding catalogue of words and phrases that are effectively banned from debates in the Assembly. The speaker decides which terms get branded and has the discretion to reprimand future users. The document often reveals the political preoccupations and taboos of the day, but it also provides an enduring portrait of Quebec’s distinctive language and history.

The list of banned words “evokes the richness of Quebec French,” said the parliamentary historian Christian Blais. It is “really revealing of the Québécois character,” said Marie-Éva de Villers, a prominent lexicographer. “There’s something very graphic, very colourful and very warm about it … There are insults, but insults given in an amusing spirit.”

Consider the phrase boss des bécosses, condemned last year after an opposition critic described the Premier that way. It means, roughly, a petty tyrant; bécosse is a francization of an old English expression, back house, for outdoor toilets. With its bilingual composition and hardscrabble roots, its sensitivity to power dynamics but also its playfulness, it seems to emerge from somewhere deep in the provincial psyche.

It’s no surprise that long exposure to English has peppered Quebec French with anglicisms: cheap, pickpockets and Yes man all appear on the index in their original form. Deputies may not call their colleagues Bonhomme sept-heures, a folkloric vagabond used to frighten misbehaving children, whose name is believed to derive from the English phrase “bone setter.”

“Since 1759, French-Canadians have lived with anglophones; that too colours the language,” noted Mr. Blais.

Even so, francophone deputies have long fought for the right to abuse each other in French. A large painting hanging above the speaker’s throne in the salon bleu depicts the bitter original debate about the official language of Lower Canada’s parliament, showing a chair overturned in anger.

The intensity of linguistic arguments may be undimmed, but the National Assembly has reformed its strictures over the years. In 1793, members were prohibited from speaking “disrespectfully” about the British royal family. During the early 20th century, however, the largely francophone assembly leaned into its civil law tradition and enumerated an increasingly dense list of regulations governing debate in the chamber, said Mr. Blais. By the 1940s, Quebec had the most detailed parliamentary rules in Canada.

The legislature has streamlined things since then, but still has a more rigid regime for policing language than other Canadian jurisdictions. The Speaker of the federal Parliament takes a much more subjective approach to judging what counts as unparliamentary. “There was a list in a reference book we used years ago,” said Heather Bradley, a spokesperson for the Speaker, “but now it is more about how words might affect the mood of the House.”

The way Quebec politicians score points against each other has also evolved over time. In an era when the province’s leaders were often educated at prestigious collèges classiques, debates could become comically highbrow. One exchange in 1972 took place entirely in Latin and ancient Greek, said Laval University literature professor Jonathan Livernois.

The index contains its share of refined put-downs, like Ponce Pilate and Shylock, as well as remnants of the archaic French that still dots Quebeckers’ lexicon, such as vire-capot (turncoat). But the list is just as notable for its inclusion of creative neologisms forged at the intersection of tradition and modernity. Lucky Luke du Twitter, for one, is a reference to a classic Franco-Belgian cartoon cowboy, and a deputy with an itchy social media finger.

Some forbidden lines of attack can seem misplaced next to these epithets. Accusing someone of hypocrisie would strike many politicians as fair game; likewise stating that another party has racisme in its ranks. Both claims have been deemed unparliamentary in Quebec. “There are plenty of anodyne words that are banned,” said Ms. de Villers. “It must be hard for them to express themselves.”

But context matters when interpreting the list of “forbidden” words, the speaker’s office insists. Members may be able to use the word “ridiculous” sometimes, but the way one deputy wielded it in 2004 (“If the ridiculous killed, the MNA would not be very alive at the moment”) crossed a line.

Rather than seeing the index as a form of censorship, denizens of Parliament Hill tend to treat it as a bit of a sport. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson of the leftist Québec solidaire, says the process of indexing words might need to be reformed at some point, to keep it from growing too big, but also acknowledged that he knows the list instinctively, the better to wield it against opponents.

“When you’re a parliamentary leader, it’s your job to flag that a ‘forbidden’ term has been used, so I learned it quite fast,” he said.

Just try calling him a tête de Slinky and see what happens.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe