A failure to communicate: Anglos flounder in Tory French-language debate: Neil Macdonald

The real spectacle during the Conservative leadership debate in Quebec City was all the awful French. Listening to it, you had to ask yourself what in heaven’s name these people are thinking.

A Conservative leader who can't speak French? Quebec voters won't buy it

Leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, right, speaks during the Conservative Party French-language leadership debate Tuesday night in Quebec City. Looking on are Erin O'Toole, from the left, Kellie Leitch, Andrew Scheer, and Pierre Lemieux. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

I have no idea what Deepak Obhrai was talking about during the Conservative French-language debate Tuesday night, and it's hard to imagine anyone else who speaks French would, either.

Plowing stolidly, syllable by syllable, jabbing his finger in the air, he demonstrated a near-total inability to communicate with a quarter of Canadians.

But you have to give the fellow credit for having the nerve to get up on stage, in Quebec City, and try. He even mocked himself, deadpan, attracting some sympathy and maybe even some affection.

Deepak Obhrai showed plenty of nerve in participating in the debate, but not much facility with French. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

But then Obhrai has just about zero chance of winning. Despite his longevity in the Commons, he remains one of the more obscure candidates in the field, which is saying something. None of them has managed much name recognition as the months have passed.

Waiting for Mr. Wonderful

Sorry, there is one. Kevin O'Leary. Mr. Wonderful does have some profile. The reality TV loudmouth can't speak French any better than Obhrai, but nonetheless considers himself the man to beat.

O'Leary skipped the debate, which at least showed some degree of self-awareness. Instead, he watched from afar — his office in Toronto, he said, rather than his home in Boston — tweeting out a few snarks about the debate, and presumably working on his imminent bombshell announcement that he'd be officially joining the race once the French debate was over with.

Businessman Kevin O'Leary skipped the French-language debate before announcing his run for the Tory leadership. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Somehow, O'Leary has persuaded himself that he can lead the party to victory in 2019 without being able to speak to Quebecers in their own language.

And several other Tories are just as delusional.

Lisa Raitt, lovely and gracious though she may be, speaks abominable French.

Kellie Leitch, the elite surgeon and academic who's trying to crusade to name recognition by railing about the tyranny of the elites (and the plague of un-Canadian immigrants from un-Canadian places), is barely comprehensible.

Kellie Leitch, left, struggled to be understood, while Maxime Bernier is both fluent in his first language and well-known in Quebec. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Brad Trost, striving to become the Canadian version of Rick Santorum, simply substitutes English when he can't think of the right French words, which is most of the time.

Erin O'Toole, who has the second-most support of any candidate among sitting and former Tory politicians, bumbles along earnestly in French-immersion French, as does former Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer, who has the most.

Debate-worthy quartet

There are in fact only four candidates who are fluent enough to credibly debate Justin Trudeau in Quebec: Maxime Bernier and Steven Blaney, both francophone MPs from Quebec ridings where very little English is spoken; Chris Alexander, a former Conservative MP and minister who was educated in Quebec; and the surprising Rick Peterson, a British Columbia businessman who can speak rapidly and nimbly.

But neither Alexander nor Petersen is Brian Mulroney, who was the only Anglo politician in generations to speak to Quebecers as a Quebecer, and to the rest of Canada in perfect English, and who was so richly rewarded for doing so.

How important is Quebec? O'Leary and the other Anglo Tories appear to have convinced themselves that the answer is not necessarily much.

Stephen Harper, after all, pulled off a majority in 2011 with just about no support in Quebec at all.

But Harper was running against another Anglo, Liberal Michael Ignatieff (who, like O'Leary, was effectively a Bostonian, and whom Harper ridiculed as "just visiting.")

Harper also had the Bloc Québécois to drain off votes into oblivion.

Who won big in Quebec that year? Jack Layton, whose social democratic views were far more aligned with the Quebec mainstream, and who spoke Quebec street French.

Anyway, things will align differently in 2019.

Trudeau is fluently bilingual and possessor of one of the most famous surnames in Quebec political history.

The Bloc is in ruins. And the NDP in 2015 hemorrhaged seats in Quebec that it had won four years earlier.

To boot, the rules of the Conservative leadership race equally weight every riding in Canada, meaning the party's relatively sparse Quebec membership will enjoy hugely outsized power in choosing the new leader. Seventy-eight of Canada's 338 ridings are in Quebec.

Bernier the target

So how important is Quebec? Pretty freaking important.

Which is probably why every time Leitch opened her mouth during the debate, it was to attack Bernier, who has both charisma and massive name recognition among Quebecers. He says he's the clear front-runner in Quebec, and he's probably right, judging by the attacks he drew.

Leitch called Bernier an impostor and a liar, or at least I think that's what she was trying to say. She called him unserious. She ordered him not to behave like Trudeau.

Blaney did the same. He sneered at Bernier as a "jogger" who was running his campaign on the backs of Quebec farmers (Bernier wants to do away with supply management boards for dairy, eggs and poultry; Blaney presents himself as the rural champion).

Blaney enjoyed the hell out of himself, speaking in swoops and crescendos, knowing that at least in his own province, there are voters who know who he is. Toward the end, he dragged out the Conservative niqab ban proposal that went thud in 2015. The crowd did seem to love that.

But the real spectacle was all the awful French. Listening to it, you had to ask yourself what in heaven's name these people are thinking.

Quebec matters. And Quebecers want to hear French.

Here's a prediction: If the party goes all Trumpy and makes Mr. Wonderful its leader, even hiring a tutor and learning how to call people "nothingburgers" in French ("rien-burgers?") won't work.

It'll be bye-bye la belle province, Tories. And good luck with that strategy.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.