MONTREAL - Quebec's deep-rooted linguistic tensions flared up in unlikely fashion Wednesday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to explain why he refused to answer questions in English at a town hall meeting.
The controversy erupted when Trudeau answered English questions in French on Tuesday night — including one about how English speakers could get help to gain access to mental health services.
"Thank you for using our country's two official languages, but since we're in Quebec I'll respond in French," Trudeau told a woman at a town hall meeting in Sherbrooke.
His unilingual performance drew an angry response from groups that represent Quebec anglophones, with some calling on the prime minister to apologize for showing what they called disrespect toward the English speakers in the audience.
At first, Trudeau defended his stance when grilled about it at a news conference Wednesday as he continued his grassroots tour. He pointed out he answered a French question in English at a recent town hall meeting in Peterborough, Ont.
But Trudeau changed his tune a few minutes later when a reporter revisited the topic.
Asked whether the English-speaking people in the audience Tuesday night did not deserve to understand him, he replied: "I understand how important it is in these public meetings to be able to answer questions about people's concerns."
"So, yes, I maybe could have answered partly in English and partly in French and, on reflection, it would have been a good thing to do," he said.
About 80 per cent of Quebecers report French as their mother tongue, with most English-speakers concentrated in the Montreal area.
It is customary for political speeches in Quebec to be mostly in French, while it is generally accepted that francophone reporters get to ask their questions first at news conferences.
Other than being briefly booed for speaking English at a Fete nationale celebration in Quebec City last year, the fluently bilingual Trudeau has thus far largely avoided the language controversies that have dogged previous prime ministers, including his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
His party made strong gains in Quebec in the 2015 election, winning 40 of the province's 78 seats. Many ridings with a high percentage of French-speaking voters still remain out of reach for the Liberals, who fare well in areas with significant anglophone representation.
But on Wednesday, Trudeau faced rare heat from some members of that English-speaking community.
Judy Ross, the woman who asked Trudeau the question about mental health, said she "felt disrespected" when he explained why he would only answer in French.
"I was so disappointed that by the time he got through that bit of fantasy land, I really didn't take in the rest," Ross said in an interview. "I was too miffed.
"It (mental health) is a topic that's very difficult to explain and express in your own language, let alone a second language. Even people who are bilingual prefer to have their services in their mother tongue. And I thought, with his life experience, he would be sensitive to that."
The president of an association representing anglophones in the province's Eastern Townships said Trudeau should apologize to the English-speaking community.
Gerald Cutting said the prime minister's refusal to use both languages undermined the anglophone community's long struggle to obtain access to services in their own language.
"There were people in that audience who felt they were demoted to second-class citizens, and that needs to be addressed," he said in an interview.
He said Trudeau's attempt to moderate his stance Wednesday was insufficient and that he should meet with members of the anglophone community to clarify his remarks.
Another organization, the Quebec Community Groups Network, also called for an apology.
"The QCGN cannot imagine the prime minister or any other bilingual politician replying in English to a French question posed in New Brunswick, Manitoba or any other province where the main language is English,'' said president James Shea.
"Even staunch defenders of the French language like (former Parti Quebecois premier) Rene Levesque would never have made such a misstep."
The prime minister's actions did find an unlikely defender, however, in the president of the sovereigntist Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste, who said Trudeau initially showed the right instincts before modifying his position Wednesday.
"For a brief moment of lucidity, a moment of grace, Justin Trudeau had a simple reflex, which was to recognize, naturally, that the only common language of Quebec is not bilingualism, it's French," Maxime Laporte said in an interview.
"But the prime minister didn't commit to it all the way, since he backtracked a few hours later."
Laporte said the controversy is proof the rest of Canada does not understand or accept Quebec's need to promote and protect French as the province's only official language, which he says does not hurt the rights of linguistic minorities.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau held a private meeting with Jean-Guy Cloutier, mayor of Lac-Megantic, the Quebec town rocked by a huge train explosion that killed 47 people in July 2013.
He also met with students in a cafe at Bishop's University, where he signed autographs, posed for several selfies and went behind the counter to have a photo taken with employees.
Before leaving, he signed a note for a student explaining why he was absent from class.
Trudeau then headed to a fast-food restaurant in Granby where he was greeted by people wanting photos and autographs. A woman even asked him to sign a book that contained a recipe from his mother, Margaret Sinclair.
— With files from Vicky Fragasso-Marquis