His competition accused him of running scared by not participating in the Conservative Party's official French-language debate in Quebec City last month, but Kevin O'Leary's team says just days from now he will put his language skills to the test in a bilingual debate.

"Let's just say that I'm pretty sure that he's going to surprise a lot of people," said O'Leary's Quebec organizer Norm Vocino.

The Feb.13 debate in Pointe-Claire, a suburb on the West Island of Montreal, could prove to be a significant moment in the increasingly heated Conservative leadership race.

O'Leary has emerged as a major contender since his late entry into the race Jan.18, but he's dogged by questions about his ability to communicate with millions of francophones in Quebec and beyond.

O'Leary, who was born in Quebec, previously said he was "terrible" at French in school but that it didn't matter because he speaks "the language of jobs and the economy."

He has since reversed his position and begun learning French "again" — raising the question of whether his grasp of the language might be a bit better than he has previously indicated.

French not mandatory?

The debate is organized by two local riding associations, Lac–Saint–Louis and Pierrefonds–Dollard.

Most of the 14 leadership candidates are expected to attend.

Because it's not one of the five official debates organized by the Conservative Party's national leadership committee, there is no $10,000 fine for candidates who opt out.

It's also not clear precisely how much French will be required at the Pointe-Claire debate.

Questions will come from the moderator as well as Conservative party members and will be read in the language in which they are submitted, according to the president of the Lac–Saint–Louis Conservative riding association, Andrew Swidzinski.

However, he said, it will be up to the moderator to decide whether to translate the questions for candidates. Candidates can respond in the language of their choice.


Leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, right, was one of only two francophones on the stage in Quebec City last month, as some other leadership candidates struggled in the party's French-only debate. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Pointe-Claire debate will run a bit longer than two hours. Right now organizers are preparing for upwards of 150 people to attend.

It's clear from previous debates that a few candidates struggle profoundly to express themselves in French, while some others are fluently bilingual.

O'Leary is the only candidate whose skills remain something of a mystery.

Halifax debate Saturday

While it will be a telling test of French, it won't be the first time O'Leary debates his opponents.

All 14 candidates will debate in Halifax this Saturday, but this event will be held in English.

Two more official bilingual debates are planned, one in Edmonton on Feb. 28 and another which has yet to be announced.

The vote to choose a new Conservative leader will be held May 27.