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In Depth

Liberal Party

Are language skills a political roadblock?

Last Updated Dec. 6, 2006

Stéphane Dion waves to supporters as he arrives at the Liberal leadership convention Friday, Dec. 1, 2006, in Montreal. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Stéphane Dion, the new leader of the Liberal party, has been criticized for his highly accented English. Some Canadians see it as a roadblock for a future election campaign, as it could hinder his ability to communicate with anglophone Canadians.

Claude Denis, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, says Dion's accent won't be a hindrance.

"It looks to me as if Dion's limited English meshes well with the perception that he's a very sincere and honest politician. In some way, his lack of skill enhances his perceived honesty, the perceived ordinary person aspect of him. He's not slick."

Denis says francophone leaders are expected to be more proficient in English than their anglophone counterparts in French.

"They're functional full time in English," Denis says. "The weak English speaker is a lot stronger than someone like [John] Turner who was functional in French. Less than that and you have no viability whatsoever."

Bilingualism in Parliament

In 1867, the British North America Act permitted the use of either English or French in debates in Parliament and federal court debates. Section 133 also stated that both languages must be used in the record and journals of Parliament.

Despite permission to use either language, simultaneous translation in the House of Commons didn't begin until 1959.

During this period, it was acceptable for leadership candidates to be unilingual anglophones. However, French leadership hopefuls needed to be able to work full time in English.

In 1969, following the work of the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the first Official Languages Act was adopted by Parliament. Its objectives were:

  • The equality of English and French in Parliament, within the Government of Canada, the federal administration and institutions subject to the Act.
  • The preservation and development of official language communities in Canada.
  • The equality of English and French in Canadian society.

This act and the arrival of the fluently bilingual and eloquent Pierre Trudeau changed the linguistic expectations for politicians at the federal level.

Leadership hopefuls had to seriously accept the challenges of learning a second language, be it French or English.

By 1988, a new Official Languages Act was adopted in Parliament. It stated the government's commitment to promote linguistic duality within Canadian society and the use of the two languages in the provision of government services and throughout government institutions.

"It's become hard to imagine someone who would make a credible run at leadership who doesn't have some language skills in both French and English," Denis says.

How PMs measure up

Here's how Denis rates the language skills of past (and present) prime ministers:

John Diefenbaker (1957 to 1963)

John Diefenbaker in 1963. (Canadian Press)

Diefenbaker only made the most tentative forays into French, and never with much success. He represents the end of the old order of things, when political leaders weren't expected to be bilingual. As University of Toronto professor Nelson Wiseman says: "John Diefenbaker couldn't really speak French but they [Progressive Conservatives] still won a majority of seats in Quebec in 1958."

Lester B. Pearson (1963 to 1968)

Riding on the coattails of Diefenbaker's minimalist second-language usage, Pearson came off as fairly eloquent in French. Pearson would be the last political leader to survive on the federal political scene without being at least functional in both languages.

Pierre Trudeau (1968 to 1979, 1980 to 1984)

Pierre Trudeau in 1971. (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

Trudeau was not only functional, but also fluent, in both official languages. Denis says that while Wilfrid Laurier and Louis St-Laurent were bilingual, Trudeau's ease and eloquence were seen as something new, marking a significant change in Canadians' expectations for their leaders. After Trudeau, Denis says, "Quebecers largely came to expect if you're going to ask for my vote, you better speak French."

Joe Clark (1979 to 1980)

Trudeau's fluency was a difficult act to follow, but Clark accepted learning French as a serious challenge. "When he became leader of the Progressive Conservatives he had very limited French, and even what he had was very hard to understand," Denis says, adding that, in time, Clark succeeded in learning French.

John Turner (1984)

Turner was functionally fluent and by the standards expected in the 1960s, his French would have been more than adequate. But in the post-Trudeau years, functional was no longer acceptable. "Turner doesn't have an easy way with French," Denis says.

Brian Mulroney (1984 to 1993)

Brian Mulroney in 1990. (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

Mulroney grew up as an anglophone surrounded by French, so he learned both the language and the colloquialisms. As a result, he sounded completely at ease when speaking French. "If you were to do a survey in Quebec and ask if Mulroney was an anglophone or francophone, a lot of people would answer not sure or that he was a Quebecer," Denis says. "He's perceived as a native son."

Kim Campbell (1993)

Kim Campbell in 1993. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press) Jean Chrétien in 2005. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

She was fluent in French, but got in trouble when she said she was also fluent in Russian, and proved not to be.

Jean Chrétien (1993 to 2003)

Jean Chrétien was an entertaining and witty public speaker. But, as Wiseman says: "He mangled things in both languages." Chrétien was the first prime minister from Quebec to speak English with a French accent. Before him, French leaders tended to speak English with an Irish accent. This accent caused some unpopularity in Quebec, where critics said that Chrétien was pandering to English Canadian stereotypes of Canadians.

Paul Martin (2003 to 2006)

Martin's French is generally good. However, he has a bit of a mixed image in Quebec. "People have not been sure how to evaluate his French," Denis says. "Part of the profile he's wanted to build is as a Quebecer. If he's a francophone, he's not very good in French. If he's anglophone, he's pretty good."

Stephen Harper (2006 to present)

Harper's French is serviceable and improving. Denis says Harper's second language has improved to the point where it's not a significant liability anymore.: "Harper's acquired a level of French that I would think most people in Quebec find reasonable." As well, Denis says, Harper always starts his press conference statements in French. "That has sent a message that he takes it seriously, that makes people more receptive to him in Quebec. And then people are more likely to accept the imperfections in his language."

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