The new leader of Quebec's Liberals says it's time for an attitude overhaul when it comes to language in the province.
Philippe Couillard says he'll oppose current language legislation because he believes the Parti Quebecois' Bill 14 takes the wrong approach to protecting French.
Couillard says the province has had enough coercive measures over the decades to make people speak French, and they've worked well.
"Now it's time to move from coercion, to encouragement," Couillard said Monday.
He said the bill's provisions, which set stricter rules on using French in businesses and make it easier to impose a French-only status on municipalities, take exactly the wrong approach: "I'm not really sure we'll protect the French language that way."
The bill appears in serious trouble. Even before they had a new leader, the Liberals were opposed, and the Coalition party also wants to see its key provisions gutted. Both parties have enough votes to defeat any government measure.
Couillard held a news conference Monday on his first full day as the leader of Quebec's Opposition party. He said he received congratulatory phone calls Sunday from two federal politicians – the interim leader of the Liberal party, Bob Rae, and his heir apparent Justin Trudeau.
Couillard downplayed the extent of his ties to a more controversial federal appointee, Arthur Porter.
He and Porter were once appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the committee that monitors Canada's spy agency, and they also ran a consulting business together.
Porter, a former hospital administrator, now faces fraud charges in connection with a scandal-plagued contract to build a large hospital.
The Liberal leader's opponents have already begun trying to use Couillard's past ties against him. One says Couillard, who is returning to politics after a five-year absence, must seek a legislature seat immediately to answer questions about Porter.
Couillard has said his immediate priority is rebuilding the party – not running for a seat in the minority parliament.
"You can't be a coward and deny your friendships," he said, admitting that he knew Porter well.
"But, this being said, it's very unfair to draw any association between me and the awarding of the contract."
He said he could never even have exerted any influence, had he wanted to, in the awarding of the controversial McGill super-hospital contract that has resulted in charges against Porter and former executives at engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
As for his stated wish to reopen the 1982 Constitution to get a deal Quebec could approve, Couillard has been playing down the urgency of that priority.
His very mention of the issue has had the pro-independence Parti Quebecois seeking to pull him in deeper, with demands that he start laying out what new conditions he would seek for Quebec.
The last Liberal leader, Jean Charest, steered far and wide of any discussion about constitutional reform. Charest himself was a veteran of the constitutional battles when he was a Mulroney Tory cabinet minister in the 1980s and 90s, and he expressed no nostalgia for them.
Charest discreetly drove home that perspective over the weekend, when he told reporters at the Liberal convention that the No. 1 priority had to be the economy. When asked a follow-up question about the Constitution, Charest started to walk away from the media scrum.
At the same time, the PQ's minister responsible for "sovereigntist governance" was issuing a demand that Couillard start laying out constitutional conditions to get the discussion going.
Couillard played down the urgency of the issue Monday.
"We know the PQ's technique – which is to ask for a list as soon as possible," Couillard said.