There was an awkward moment as NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was scrumming in Sudbury, challenging her two absent rivals to join her for a debate in Northern Ontario, where neither have yet shown their faces.
“Come on up,” she dared them.
But when a reporter asked if she’d be prepared to participate in a French-language debate, all bravado was gone.
She grinned sheepishly.
“At this point, probably not. But hopefully by the next campaign, I’ll be ready,” she said. “As you can see,” she said of her French, “it needs a little bit of work.”
Ms. Horwath has been working a sentence or two of French into all of her stump speeches so far. A fellow MPP said she takes classes twice weekly normally, and she said Thursday she planned to resume those lessons if she’s re-elected.
She pointed to France Gelinas, the NDP’s francophone critic standing behind her, as the party’s point person on planned improvements to the province’s language policies. But Ms. Horwath admitted she isn’t up to speed on those plans herself.
“I don’t know the specifics of details around our plan for improving the services, but it is on our radar,” she said. “In fact, there’s many times when I’ve taken a flight to Northern Ontario and the flight attendants are no longer providing instructions in both of our official languages. And that’s quite disconcerting.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak was in the same boat Thursday, when a CBC reporter asked him how important it was for the premier of Ontario to be bilingual. The question was asked in French, but Mr. Hudak answered in English.
“I’ll make every effort I can,” he said. “I wish I could stand before you today and say I can speak French. But I don’t. If I have the opportunity and time ahead, I’ll improve my language skills.”
He said the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner and Office of Francophone Affairs, which helps ensure access to French services in areas where they are needed, would be subject to the same 2-per-cent budget reduction as other government departments.
“I respect the Act and will make sure services are available where there is demand, just as the Act says,” he said in a suburban backyard where he visited with a card-carrying Conservative family. “All of us have an obligation to find two cents on every dollar we spend to cut waste and duplication. There’s too much waste and not enough front-line services. We all have to make an effort to do so.”
Inability to speak both official languages fluently has been considered a deal-breaker for would-be prime ministers. It’s not clear how much that would impede a potential premier in Ontario, which still has a significant francophone population.
NDP MPP Gilles Bisson, who was hosting Ms. Horwath in Sudbury Thursday, insisted it wouldn’t be an issue: She has strong francophone caucus members to do that for her, he said.