Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge, pictured in the foyer of the House of Commons on Nov. 29, was recently asked to reply in English by Alberta MP Rachel Thomas during a heritage committee hearing.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada’s Official Languages Commissioner says he’s “shocked and disappointed” that the right of a federal cabinet minister to speak French in Parliament was questioned this week.

Raymond Théberge was reacting to an incident in which a Conservative MP asked the Heritage Minister to speak English during a committee hearing.

In a statement on Friday, Mr. Théberge noted that since 1867, parliamentarians have been allowed to use either English or French in Parliament to perform their duties.

“I was shocked and disappointed when I found out that, in 2023, this right was being questioned by some parliamentarians,” said Mr. Théberge, noting the right is protected under the Official Languages Act.

On Thursday, Rachael Thomas, an Alberta MP, was questioning Pascale St-Onge, the Heritage Minister, during a hearing of the heritage committee when she remarked on the language the Quebec MP was speaking.

“Minister, I noticed that you answer my questions in French, but other English questions you answer in English, if they’re from your Liberal colleagues,” Ms. Thomas said. “I realize it’s completely your choice, we’re a bilingual country, but if at all possible, I would love to have it in English.”

In a letter to the chair of the heritage committee later Thursday, Ms. Thomas apologized for her comments. She asked that the apology be sent to the minister and other members of the committee.

Mr. Théberge took note of the apology. “While I recognize that apologies have been made, I expect all parliamentarians to acknowledge and respect this fundamental right now and in the future.”

Quebec’s Minister of the French Language also spoke out on the issue on Friday. “I think it’s unacceptable to ask a Quebecker or French people in Canada to express themselves in English at the National Assembly here or at the House of Commons in Ottawa,” Jean-François Roberge told journalists at the National Assembly in Quebec City.

Mr. Roberge said, however, that he was pleased Ms. Thomas apologized. “It was the right thing to do,” he said.

Fred Delorey, a veteran of Conservative politics who was national campaign manager for the Conservative Party in 2021, said it appears Ms. Thomas was seeking clips for social media in her questioning of the minister.

Mr. Delorey noted that Conservatives have been sending out such clips in an effort to communicate directly with the public, which he said has been key to their rise in public-opinion polls.

“She wants to get the questions that matter to the base and the people that see her on social media, get those questions asked and get the response from the minister,” he said.

Follow related authors and topics

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

Interact with The Globe