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The Piquette Affair
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René Le Marchand

The Piquette Affair

Stanislas La Rue

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In 1987, a short statement in French catapulted Leo Piquette from the back benches of the Alberta Legislature to the front pages of the nation's newspapers. Piquette, a Plamondon businessman and the New Democrat MLA for Lac La Biche, rose in the Question Period on 7 April to ask a question about minority language rights under the proposed School Act.

When Piquette began a question in French with "Les franco-Albertains attendant impatiemment depuis 1982," Speaker David Carter rose in response, reminding Piquette about previous discussions regarding the use of French in the assembly. "En anglais, s’il vous plait," Carter said.

Piquette insisted that he had the right to ask his question in French, but Carter told him that he would be ruled out of order, and asked that he speak in English.
Piquette continued his question in English, but later rose on a question of privilege, claiming that "it is the right of each and every member of this Assembly to conduct their business in this Assembly at any point in the Assembly’s proceedings in either official language."

The exchange touched off a controversy over French minority language rights, played against a background of the divisive wrangling over the 1982 patriation of the Canadian Constitution, and the ongoing negotiations surrounding the Meech Lake Accord.

Piquette’s decision to speak French in the legislature surprised many, but anyone listening to his maiden speech on 20 June 1986 heard him say that in the future he would speak French, with the "confidence these rights will be respected in this chamber."
Piquette was praised by many for his stance on minority language rights, and Carter was chastised in newspaper editorials for refusing to let the MLA speak French in the Alberta Legislature. While the controversy played out on the newspaper pages, Carter and his staff in the Speaker’s Office sought an answer to the thorny question of minority language rights in the Alberta Legislature.

Two days later, Carter delivered a lengthy ruling, essentially stating that using French in the legislature was out of order, "until such time as the House itself gives authority to the Chair to permit the use of French in the Chamber." The matter was subsequently referred to the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, Standing Orders and Printing. The committee came back with a report in November and recommended, among other things, that Piquette should apologize to the Assembly. Piquette clarified that it was not his intention to challenge the authority of the Speaker, and this was accepted in lieu of an apology. The House adopted, on 27 November, new rules which allowed for the use of any language in the Assembly provided that English translations or brief descriptions be made available, and in the case of Oral Question Period, two hours' notice be given in advance.

Piquette only served one term in the Alberta Legislature; he was defeated by Progressive Conservative Mike Cardinal in the 1989 election.

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