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Dewar counters French flak with Quebec caucus support in NDP race

Ottawa MP Paul Dewar responds to a question during an NDP leadership debate in Quebec City on Feb. 12, 2012.

CLEMENT ALLARD/Clement Allard/The Canadian Press

After taking a series of punches about his French-language skills, NDP leadership candidate Paul Dewar has shot back by announcing the endorsements of two Quebec colleagues who represent francophone ridings in the House.

Mr. Dewar, an experienced MP from Ottawa, has been waging a strong campaign, while acknowledging that he still has much work to do on his bilingualism skills.

In a statement released Friday, NDP MP Hélène Laverdière, who defeated former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe on May 2, said Mr. Dewar's French is improving quickly.

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"I also know that he shares the values of Quebeckers and that he is ready to defend their interests. I am convinced that the more Quebeckers get to know him, the more they will appreciate him, as I've come to do by working with him," said Ms. Laverdière, who replaced Mr. Dewar as the Opposition foreign affairs critic.

Hoang Mai, another rookie MP who represents a riding on Montreal's south shore, said he believes that Mr. Dewar would defend Quebec's interests as NDP leader.

"Paul works hard and his French is improving every day. He has always been in favour of the Sherbrooke Declaration and he voted in the House to recognize the Quebec nation. I am confident he will continue to work hard to defend Quebec's interests," Mr. Mai said.

The other camps acknowledge that Mr. Dewar is running a strong campaign and gathering momentum on his way to the March 24 convention. However, his rivals are honing in on his French skills, which are arguably the weakest of the remaining seven candidates.

The strongest criticism has come from strategist Brian Topp, who said that Mr. Dewar lacked the bilingualism requirements to help the NDP maintain its strong presence in Quebec.

"My sense is that Paul Dewar does not have the ability to speak to French-speaking Quebeckers in their language, which in my view is something that the next leader must have," Mr. Topp said in an interview this week.

A supporter of NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair, who is the best known party figure in Quebec, also raised doubts about Mr. Dewar's French-speaking skills.

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"Of all of the candidates, [Mr. Dewar]is the one who is the least at ease in French, which is a fundamental problem in Quebec," Trois-Rivières MP Robert Aubin said. "It doesn't change anything to his depth or his qualities, but in order to become the next prime minister of Canada, bilingualism is essential."

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