The Parti Québécois had to backpedal Wednesday from Leader Pauline Marois's remarks that people running for public office in Quebec have to prove they have an appropriate grasp of the French language.
The separatist leader had been speaking Tuesday about her party's proposal to create a Quebec citizenship if it wins the Sept. 4 election.
"It's not for new Quebeckers, it's for everyone. All Quebec citizens who want to be elected as a mayor or a councillor, as a member of the legislature, must have a knowledge of French," Ms. Marois said during a campaign stop in Montreal.
Even long-established anglophone Quebeckers would have to heed that requirement, she said. "In the case of anglophones, be it a native or a new arrival, the common language here is French," Ms. Marois said. "Is there anyone who can imagine not knowing it?"
However, faced with an uproar from non-francophones and native groups, the party issued a statement Wednesday flatly contradicting the leader.
Non-francophone Canadians already residing in Quebec would be excluded from the language requirement since they are automatically Quebec citizens, the statement said.
The party's flip-flop was the latest twist in a campaign where Ms. Marois has often played up identity issues in a bid to woo the francophone electorate.
Some commentators are even speculating that such proposals, which are likely to be overturned by the courts, are part of a deliberate attempt to hike up antagonism against federal institutions.
The idea of Quebec citizenship was first outlined in Bill 195, a private bill Ms. Marois unveiled in 2007.
The communiqué the party sent out Wednesday pointed out that, under its initial proposal, Quebec citizenship would be automatically granted to all Canadian citizens already living in the province at the time Bill 195 would be enacted.
French language proficiency would only be required from"newcomers" — Canadians moving to Quebec after the law had been passed.
In addition to to French language proficiency, candidates also need to have "an appropriate knowledge of Quebec" and are asked to swear an oath of allegiance to the laws and constitution of Quebec.
However, without specifically mentioning the PQ or Ms. Marois, the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador warned Wednesday that "no one will impose its laws upon us."
In a statement, assembly chief Ghislain Picard said: "If the political parties think they can impose their citizenship and their language, they would do better to continue ignoring us. In any event, we will be waiting them out, after the elections."
The PQ argues that language abilities are a prerequisite to citizenship in many countries, including Canada, which requires "adequate knowledge" of either French or English.
However, even bereft of Ms. Marois's latest musings about language, the French-only conditions of Bill 195 have been questioned. Law experts say Bill 195 violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Unilingual English-speaking Canadians who move to Quebec, for example for business reasons, wouldn't be able to run in provincial, municipal or school elections, noted three University of Ottawa law professors, Yan Campagnolo, Sébastien Grammond and Charles-Maxime Panaccio.
"Such violations are out of proportion with the objective of protecting and promoting of French . . . It would be most surprising – and most unfortunate indeed – if the survival of French in Quebec could only be assured by creating two classes of citizens," the three professors wrote in an op-ed piece after Bill 195 was first introduced.
"I've rarely seen such improvisation on a subject that is not to be taken lightly. That proposition has existed for years in the PQ, and when it was presented it was supported by François Legault," said Liberal Leader Jean Charest, who was campaigning in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
"This was supposed to be their first legislation. I hope their slogan isn't 'We're ready.' Obviously, they're not."
With a report from Les Perreaux