New Brunswick

English-language boot camp draws revenue minister to UNB

National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier wanted to ramp up her English quickly, so she turned to the University of New Brunswick's English immersion program.

Diane Lebouthillier spent 3 weeks this month living in Fredericton and speaking only English

National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier says she'll ask her staff in Ottawa to speak to her only in English, so she can keep practising her second-language skills. (CBC)

Growing up on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula, Diane Lebouthillier had little exposure to English. So when she was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal MP in 2015 — and was then appointed minister of national revenue — she faced a sudden adjustment.

Some anglophone journalists said, 'We've got a minister who can't speak English.'- Diane Lebouthillier, revenue minister

It wasn't unlike what unilingual anglophone politicians experience when they suddenly find themselves in a bilingual political milieu — except unilingual francophones are far more rare.

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"Some anglophone journalists said, 'We've got a minister who can't speak English,'" Lebouthillier said.

She had a rough familiarity with the language but opted to answer questions only in French to avoid putting her foot in it.

"There are interpreters, they can do their work," she said. "And the questions can be pointed when you're a minister, and English is my second language, so I can't let myself make a mistake because it will be repeated and repeated, 'The minister said …'"

UNB immersion program

Even so, Lebouthillier wanted to ramp up her English quickly, so she turned to the University of New Brunswick's English immersion program, a boot camp that caters mostly to federal civil servants, as well as to businesspeople from foreign countries.

The program welcomes 1,400 students from 80 countries in a typical year, a spokesperson for UNB said.

It's not easy.- Diane Lebouthillier, national revenue minister

For three weeks in January, the federal minister lived with an English-speaking family in Fredericton and took the bus to campus every day for classes. She was not allowed to speak any language except English.

"All the time," she said. "Twenty-four hours a day. It's not easy." After her first day, she said, she was exhausted.

But she said in a bilingual country she wants to be able to communicate in both languages.

"It's really important for me."

Lebouthillier chose UNB because she did her undergraduate degree at the Université de Moncton and knew the province.

1st English interview

Her interview with CBC New Brunswick was the first she'd ever done in English.

A man with short grey hair and a dark grey moustache talks to a variety of media microphones held in front of him.
New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs has spent time in Quebec City, trying to learn French. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

She said the toughest part of learning her second language has been the verbs. At the start of her three weeks at UNB, she said, she tried to translate what others were saying to her word by word. By the end, she said, she could grasp the meaning of a sentence as a whole.

"I think my English is better but it's important for me to continue to learn English and practise English in the coming months and the coming years," she said. "I'm sure, step by step, I'll be good."

She plans to tell her ministerial staff to speak to her only in English so she can keep improving. She said Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, an MP from Toronto, gets her staff to speak to her only in French so she can practise that language.

Blaine Higgs learning French

While Lebouthillier was in Fredericton learning English, New Brunswick's new Progressive Conservative leader, Blaine Higgs, was in Quebec City learning French at a program run by Laval University.

Higgs took a pass on trying to answer a question in French during a media scrum last Friday. "Not just yet," he said.

Lebouthillier said that given her own reluctance to risk making a mistake in English before she's mastered the language, she's sympathetic to anglophone politicians in the same boat.

"So I can understand anglophone ministers who are cautious about French interviews because it's the same thing. They'll have trouble if they make mistakes."


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.