Parti Quebecois leader Jean-Francois Lisée has spoken out against comments made by an MNA in his caucus.

Francois Gendron, MNA for Abitibi-Ouest and third deputy speaker of the National Assembly, acknowledged in an interview with CTV that he used the N-word during a recent presentation to high school students.

Lisée responded to the controversial comments Wednesday morning, stopping to speak to reporters on his way into a caucus meeting at the National Assembly.

“I told him - and he agreed - that it was not an expression that was acceptable and he should apologize, which he had done already, and I think it's a lesson for everyone,” said Lisée.

Asked if there was a distinction to be made between the French term “negre” and the English word “n-----,” Lisée was categorical.

“I don’t think you should even try to get into this argument,” Lisée said. “ The word is offensive, and even if some might have other explanations, you just should not use it. Period.”

The longest-serving member of the National Assembly, Gendron apologized to Quebec City high school Ecole secondaire La Camaradière after using the expression during a talk with students last month.

Like other speakers of the National Assembly, Gendron visits high schools across the province to explain how the legislature works.

In the interview with CTV News, Gendron openly acknowledged he used the “N” word, in response to a question about the toughest ministry he’d worked in.

"I responded that when I was in natural resources, I loved the ministry but I had to work hard and instead of saying that, I said, ‘I worked like a n-----,’” Gendron said.

CTV News obtained a copy of a complaint sent to the National Assembly after Gendron's visit.

The letter says the school administration wanted to flag the term Gendron used, because "certain African and Haitian students were shocked to hear the expression".

The letter went on to say the expression was "out of place because the term n----- is very pejorative."

Gendron said even though he doesn't see what the fuss is all about, he has apologized to the school and in his view the issue is settled.

“Normally when we use this expression in Quebec, it means 'to work hard.' There is in no way any link with cultural communities, which I respect and I am happy to welcome. So I can't believe this... to try and make an issue out of this. I don't understand,” he said.

Despite the letter sent to the National Assembly, the school’s vice principal declined CTV’s request for an interview, expressing concerns the incident had been blown out of proportion.


Immigration minister reacts

David Heurtel, minister of immigration, diversity and inclusiveness, addressed the issue as he exited a Liberal caucus meeting Wednesday morning.

“I think that's an example of, clearly, the need for more education. The use of this term is completely uncalled for in any type of context,” said Heurtel. “I don’t think it’s being blown out of proportion (…) I don’t think we should minimize at all the fact that we need more education, and that includes even the Vice President of the National Assembly.” 


Old expression

Benoit Melançon, a professor of French literature at l'Université de Montreal and member of the Order of the Francophones of America, said the term “travailler comme un negre” was commonly used in the past.

“It's an old expression. It appeared first in French in 1812,” Melançon said. “It was directly related to slavery. When you ‘travailler comme un negre’, it means you work a lot, you have lots of work to do, it’s difficult.”

Melançon said the word “negre” has also been used in Quebec literature in a variety of contexts.

He cited the 1968 political manifesto of Pierre Vallieres entitled “Negres blancs d'Amerique”, and the 1985 book by Haitian-born writer Dany Laferriere called “Comment faire l’amour avec un Negre sans se fatiguer.”

“Of course sensibilities have changed. For a number of years, nobody cared much about the expression,” he said. “But over the last few years, things have changed radically. Nobody would use that today without noticing that some people could be hurt by that expression (…) People are more sensitive now than they used to be, and I really don’t understand how someone cannot be sensitive to these things in this day and age.”