OTTAWA - Tory cabinet minister Vic Toews accused Liberals of insulting all unilingual anglophones Tuesday, after two MPs questioned his ability to implement official languages policy without being able to speak French.
The flap erupted as the Treasury Board president was being questioned at a Commons committee about his responsibility for language policy in the federal public service.
"Do you speak French?" inquired Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez.
"Don't you think someone who has responsibility such as yours should be bilingual?"
Toews - who speaks English and Spanish as well as his first language, German - was incensed.
"I should feel free to be able to speak the official language of my choice and for you to even ask that question is an insult," he raged.
But Jean-Claude D'Amours, another Liberal MP, pursued the matter.
"It seems to me that when we talk about official languages and bilingualism in Canada, you should be a bilingual person to better be able to serve the people," D'Amours said.
"For you that's an insult. I think it's an insult to me that you should be so bold as to make such a comment."
Toews then accused the Liberals of suggesting unilingual Canadians are second-class citizens.
"For some reason, I'm less of a Canadian, I'm less entitled to hold public office because I only speak one of the official languages," he fumed.
"For you to come here and insult me in that way is quite a disgrace. I thought we had gotten beyond that kind of a situation."
Toews later told reporters the Liberals' line of questioning was "an insult to millions of Canadians," especially immigrants who struggle to learn English or French as a second language.
He said his Manitoba riding includes one of the largest francophone populations in Western Canada and maintained he's always been supportive of minority language issues as a result.
Moreover, he pointed out that the last Liberal Treasury Board president, Reg Alcock, hailed from Manitoba and was unilingual.
Rodriguez later said he "fully respects" Canadians - including some of his Liberal colleagues - who are unilingual. He said he wasn't questioning Toews' right to sit in cabinet, only his ability to implement official languages policy.