MONTREAL - The Parti Quebecois has watered down a part of its language policy just one day after its original announcement prompted a backlash from aboriginal groups.
The party now says it won't actually force everyone in Quebec, including aboriginal peoples, to prove they can speak French to run for local or provincial office.
The PQ now explains that its proposed new "Quebec citizenship" status would automatically be granted to everyone who already lives in the province and, with that citizenship, someone could run for elected office.
Future newcomers would still have to demonstrate some knowledge of Quebec and of French, however, to become Quebec "citizens" and run for office in a process the PQ described as similar to what exists in Canada.
When PQ Leader Pauline Marois originally announced her plan for a Quebec citizenship on Tuesday, she indicated that the policy would apply to everybody. By Wednesday, the PQ was downplaying the immediate scope of its ambition.
"What we want is to eventually move toward a Quebec where the representatives chosen by citizens can communicate at a minimum level of French with the people they represent," said PQ MNA Alexandre Cloutier.
"We hope for that because French is the language of the majority in Quebec — it's the official language."
But Marois' announcement had prompted a swift backlash from native groups. Some aboriginal communities overwhelmingly speak English or native languages.
An Inuit group called the PQ proposal ridiculous. And, in a statement on Wednesday, the Quebec and Labrador Assembly of First Nations said it wouldn't abide by the policy.
The statement from Assembly Chief Ghislain Picard said "none of the First Nations in Quebec" will bend to "a foreign law adopted by a provincial government."
The plan is among several of the nationalist policies put forward by the PQ, currently considered the front-runner, in the current election campaign. It has also promised to extend language laws beyond high school, to junior colleges.
The party says it wants to send the messages that when immigrants arrive in Quebec, they are arriving in a French-speaking territory with a certain set of values.
The PQ has also indicated that it would welcome any conflict with the federal government, or the Supreme Court, on these identity issues because that would in their opinion illustrate that Quebec's identity will always be threatened for as long as it remains in Canada.
However, it's not yet clear whether public opinion in Quebec would ultimately side with the PQ or the Supreme Court in any such conflict.
In the face of a backlash, the party has already hinted that its plan to extend Bill 101 to CEGEPs would not be an immediate priority. Then there was Wednesday's backpedalling.
Liberal Leader Jean Charest expressed disbelief.
"I have rarely seen such improvisation — on a subject that isn't mundane either," Charest said after the PQ announcement Wednesday.
"It's about who has a right to run in elections."
Charest noted that the citizenship plan dates back several years, and was endorsed by the party when Francois Legault — now the Coalition party leader — was still with the PQ. He referred to an interview in which a prominent PQ member said the citizenship plan would be the party's first act in government.
"Now you're telling me they won't do it. Oh," Charest deadpanned. He said the confusion proved the PQ wasn't ready to govern.
The PQ was vague on other details of its plan. It couldn't say whether its citizenship legislation would apply to aboriginal people who arrive from outside Quebec — from Labrador, for instance.
Cloutier said the legislation would be studied by a parliamentary committee where all citizens could share their concerns.
"Our aboriginal friends will have the chance to come and express themselves in front of a parliamentary committee," Cloutier said. He added that the idea was being presented in a "spirit of openness and those who want to be heard, will be."