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Bernier blasted for calling historic Quebec language law unnecessary

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier speaks with the media following Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, October 7, 2010.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Quebec politicians and pundits are slamming Conservative MP Maxime Bernier for claiming a landmark Quebec language law is unnecessary to preserve the French language.

The Liberal government and Opposition Parti Quebecois have both denounced the former federal cabinet minister for saying that Quebeckers don't need Bill 101.

The federal government is refusing to wade into the potentially divisive debate. Sara MacIntyre, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister, said in an interview that the Harper government "respects provincial jurisdiction."

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The Tory government holds 11 seats in Quebec and is eager to keep them in its quest for a majority. The comment isn't likely to improve the Conservative party's popularity in the province.

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois called the comment "unacceptable," especially coming from a Quebecker.

"Mr. Bernier should come to Montreal more often, where we can see there is an anglicization now," Ms. Marois told reporters at the party's regional convention in the city.

"And we know that Quebec would not be what it is now if (we) hadn't applied the law 101."

The 1977 legislation, which restricted English on street signs and access to English public schools, is often credited with saving the French language from decline in the province.

Quebec Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre also condemned the comment, saying language laws aren't Mr. Bernier's area of expertise and that he should clarify what he meant.

"Everyone recognizes that it has helped preserve the French language," she said.

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"Bill 101 in Quebec is a law that is irreversible and allows the French culture to be preserved and helps immigrants integrate by sending their children to French school."

Attacks on Bill 101 have been taboo for Quebec politicians for a generation, but Mr. Bernier told a Halifax radio station on Friday that French would continue to be strong without it.

Mr. Bernier, a staunch libertarian, made the comment as part of a broader discussion with the host about whether governments have a role to play in fostering national identity.

He argued it's not government's role to do so through legislation and used Quebec's language law as an example.

"It's like in Quebec - we don't need Bill 101 to protect the French language over there," Mr. Bernier told his interviewer.

"They know we speak French in Quebec and we will speak French for a long time, I believe it."

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He did not return a request for comment Saturday.

Prominent Quebec political pundit Jean Lapierre, a former Liberal and Bloc Quebecois MP, suggested Mr. Bernier dismissed the need for Bill 101 because he believes it could help him build a national support base.

Mr. Bernier is often touted as a potential leadership candidate for the federal Conservatives.

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