Ontario MP Pierre Poilievre is the only candidate in the Conservative leadership race to stay mum on Quebec’s controversial new language law, Bill 96.
Mr. Poilievre was challenged by his opponents during Wednesday’s leadership debate to make his position on the expanded language law clear but the long-time MP did not. And his campaign has not provided a statement since then, despite multiple requests. On Friday, Mr. Poilievre’s campaign said it would not release a statement.
The new law has sparked protests in Quebec and a national debate. But Mr. Poilievre dodged pressure from opponents to take a position in Wednesday’s French-language Conservative leadership debate, held just one day after Bill 96 was adopted by Quebec’s National Assembly. Despite opposition from anglophones, immigrants and Indigenous people, Premier François Legault has said the bill is needed to further entrench Quebec’s official language.
Bill 96 imposes new rules to reinforce the use of French in the public service, education and business.
Mr. Poilievre is widely viewed as the front-runner in the race, and his decision not to disclose a position on the bill reveals his political calculations and hints at possible paths to victory, said Stéphanie Chouinard, a political scientist at the Royal Military College.
“To remain silent on this potentially explosive topic entirely, signals he thinks the controversy over the bill will blow over over the summer,” Prof. Chouinard said. It also means he is aiming to avoid taking a position that would cost him support either in Quebec or in the rest of Canada.
She said a public position by Mr. Poilievre would mean risking support in Quebec (if he was seen to be overstepping jurisdiction) or risking support in English Canada (if he is viewed as being too soft on the “less palatable aspects of Québec nationalism”).
Prof. Chouinard, who researches language rights in Canada, said Mr. Poilievre has a chance to make inroads in Quebec in part because he is the only candidate, other than former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who is fluent in French.
On Friday Mr. Poilievre’s opponents criticized him for his lack of transparency on an issue that touches federal politics, with Quebec’s use of the notwithstanding clause.
“Canadians and party members need to know where politicians stand on important issues, especially given other candidates have recently changed their position on Bill 21,” Mr. Charest said in a statement to The Globe and Mail on Friday.
He said he agrees with the objective of preserving the French language and nation, but he’s concerned about how it was done and the effect on linguistic minorities. Mr. Charest said if he was in government and a challenge reached the Supreme Court, he would “not remain neutral,” but he has not said what position he would take.
Candidates Patrick Brown, Roman Baber, Leslyn Lewis and Scott Aitchison have all criticized Bill 96.
“While silence may be politically expedient, the Conservative Party of Canada must be a leader in defending the freedoms and rights of Canadians,” Mr. Aitchison said in a statement Friday.
Every candidate “should not only oppose Bill 96 but commit to intervening in any court process against it,” Mr. Brown said.
The law’s consequence to the federal government (touching on official languages and the Constitution) mean “these are not minor questions that nobody really cares about,” said Joan Fraser, a retired Liberal senator and former editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette who sits on the board of the Quebec Community Groups Network, which opposes Bill 96.
“These are big, important questions, and I think that a serious political candidate has a duty to say what he, or she, can about the position that they hold,” Ms. Fraser said.
Montreal-based constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, who opposes Bill 96, said Mr. Poilievre’s refusal to outline his position speaks to a “decline of political standards” where “people will do anything only for votes and where very few politicians have the courage to stand up.”
“Mr. Poilievre claims to be a man of principle and yet his principles appear to be quite dependent on majority views,” Mr. Grey said. He added that he is equally critical of Mr. Charest, who he said is “playing it quite carefully.”
With a report from The Canadian Press.
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