Politics·Analysis

For Conservative candidates who aren't fully bilingual, running to be prime minister won't be easy

Why do we expect Canadian prime ministers to be bilingual? Because the job is all about communicating with Canadians — all of them, and on their own terms.

It's hard to thrive in federal politics without being fluent in both languages — for good reason

Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay speaks to supporters at a meet and greet event in Ottawa on Jan. 26. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

It's 2020, and it seems we're in a place in Canadian politics again where the question of leadership is also a question of language.

Should the leader of a federal party in Canada be required to speak both of Canada's official languages? Just how bilingual is bilingual enough? How does a candidate's facility in both languages affect the ability to win?

Maybe we should be asking a different question: Why would anyone who doesn't speak both languages well even bother applying for the job?

We're talking about this now, of course, because the Conservative Party of Canada is choosing a new leader in June. The three declared candidates running to be chosen leader (and eventually, they hope, prime minister) — Peter MacKay, Erin O'Toole and Marilyn Gladu — are all able to speak French with varying degrees of success. But we'd be hard-pressed to call any of them fluent.

When MacKay launched his campaign this past weekend in Nova Scotia, he read his French lines off a Teleprompter. In spite of the visual aid, he still made grammatical errors and struggled with pronunciation.

Good luck, Mr. MacKay

His efforts were rewarded with a snarky front page in Le Journal de Quebec (the headline: "Good Luck Mister!"). MacKay took no questions in either official language, so it's hard to know how he'd handle answering them in a campaign setting. It's fair to say, though, that French does not come easily to this son of the Maritimes.

When asked directly about his ability to speak French, MacKay told columnist John Ivison in the National Post that he knows he needs to improve, but his life since leaving federal politics in 2015 hasn't afforded him as many opportunities to speak French.

A family lines up for the 2013 edition of the St-Jean-Baptiste parade in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

O'Toole, meanwhile, launched his campaign on Monday with two videos. In the French version, O'Toole clearly is struggling with a strong accent and poor pronunciation.

Now, some of you are asking, "So what? Where does anyone get off criticizing a politician's language skills?"

Like a lot of Canadians, I grew up in a unilingual home — but I've spent my entire life pursuing fluency in French. My home province of Manitoba gave me a few advantages the candidates may not share: a broad push toward French immersion, a strong Francophone community. But learning to be comfortable in a second language isn't something you do in childhood and then set aside. Every opportunity I had to immerse myself in the language, I took.

Bilingualism has served me well. I still make mistakes, of course. (Listen in to Radio-Canada's Midi-Info with Michel C. Auger, who has to listen to my occasional flubs every second Friday of the month when I do a political panel.) But this isn't about me.

It isn't even about the candidates themselves — who may indeed speak French competently enough to communicate directly with Canadian francophones across the country.

It's not about the politicians. It's about the people they want to represent.

Franco-Ontarians protest cuts to French services by the Ontario government in Ottawa on Dec. 1, 2018. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

In 2011, according to Statistics Canada, some 7.3 million Canadians cited French as their mother tongue; even more said they speak French at home. And in 2016, the agency reported that bilingualism had increased in most provinces and territories and had reached its highest proportion ever nationally: 17.9 per cent.

The vast majority of French-speaking Canadians are, of course, living in Quebec, but there are strong pockets of francophones across the country. Canada declared French and English its official languages in 1969 — which means that every federal institution is required to offer services in both languages, if asked.

A 2016 poll commissioned by the Official Languages Commission found that a vast majority of Canadians support official bilingualism — and a full 86 per cent of Canadians think the prime minister should be bilingual.

Language and elections

So that's the statistical argument: French is a fact of life in Canada, not just in Quebec, and Canadians expect their leaders to be fluent. But there are crass political factors at play as well.

Quebec holds 78 federal seats. That's more than Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta combined. It's not impossible to form a majority government without Quebec: Stephen Harper managed it in 2011 with only five MPs from the province. But doing well in Quebec makes it a lot easier.

Maybe that's not the point. Maybe we should expect our leaders to communicate well in both official languages because it's part of the job — not because it makes it easier to win and hold power. Choosing to represent people in public life should include working hard to understand them on their own terms, to recognize their importance as individuals and as members of a living culture. That's leadership.

Final point: there are roughly 90 different living Indigenous languages in Canada — three out of four of them are considered endangered. Last year, in an attempt to save at least some of them, the government passed the Indigenous Languages Act. The legislation doesn't give any Indigenous language official status, but it does allow for federal documents to be translated into Indigenous tongues and also launched a commissioner's office tasked with trying to protect some of these endangered languages.

Think about that — ninety different languages, most of them fading away. Under the circumstances, asking our leaders to talk to us in just two languages doesn't seem unreasonable.

About the Author

Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.

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