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It was April 7, 1987 and Alberta New Democrat Party (NDP) MLA Leo Piquette posed his question to the Alberta Legislature. Twice he asked, and twice he was denied. Not because his question wasn’t valid—but because it was in French.
“En anglais, s’il vous plait,” said Speaker David Carter, who informed him that if he did not speak in English, he would forfeit his right to ask his question. According to Piquette, a third-generation Franco-Albertan and the first Francophone MLA in almost a decade, politicians were justified in speaking French. After all, section 110 of the Northwest Territories Act allowed French to be spoken in the Legislatures of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Had you asked Piquette, he’d have explained that the Alberta Act, which established Alberta as a province in 1905, did not nullify this right. Citing an amendment to the Northwest Territories Act, the standing committee on privileges and elections determined that Piquette did in fact have the right to speak in French. This triggered the Legislature to quickly amend its policy in November of that same year. According to their revisions, English would from then on be the working language of the Legislature, but the use of other languages would be permitted pending the approval of the Speaker. French would receive no special treatment.
The Franco-Albertan community harshly criticized the Alberta government for this gesture, and resented the call for an apology from Piquette. La Francophonie Jeunesse organized a rally in Edmonton, which was attended by over 500 protestors. The story made national headlines and united Francophones around the country.
Despite support from Prime Minister Mulroney and the leaders of Alberta’s NDP and Liberal parties, Piquette eventually conceded. However, his actions sparked a constitutional debate that would go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and incited nationwide discussion regarding the role of French in the Canadian political arena.
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