Kenneth Whyte is publisher of Sutherland House Books and founding editor of the National Post. His books include Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, and he writes a weekly newsletter, SHuSH.
When the Conservative Party of Canada begins auditioning new leaders, as it is now, the first hurdle prospects are expected to clear is language. The shapers of elite opinion are firm that anyone aspiring to head the CPC needs to be capably bilingual, and the party agrees.
With the exception of businessman Kevin O’Leary, each of fourteen candidates to replace Stephen Harper in the CPC’s 2017 leadership race professed some degree of competence in French, and even Mr. O’Leary changed his mind and promised to at least try to learn the language before finally aborting his bid. The current race is shaping up to be just as uniform.
It’s time the party reconsidered its bilingual prerequisite, along with its approach to winning seats in Quebec. It hasn’t worked.
Bilingualism is not a constitutional or legislative requirement for a party leader or prime minister. It is not even a convention. Bilingualism as a leadership credential arose relatively recently in our history in response to a discrete event, the rise of separatist sentiment in Quebec. The retiring Liberal prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, thought it advisable, under the circumstances, that his successor be a bilingual French-Canadian capable of countering the appeal of René Lévesque.
Mr. Pearson was not bilingual. Nor were five of his seven predecessors as Liberal leader. Nor was his Progressive Conservative counterpart, former prime minister John Diefenbaker, whose party through history had seemed almost to demand unilingual leadership. While in 24 Sussex, Mr. Pearson and Mr. Diefenbaker both followed the time-honoured strategy of managing political affairs in Quebec by appointing a francophone lieutenant. The lieutenant advised the leader and spoke for the party in the province, an approach elevated to high art over two decades by Mackenzie King, the long-serving unilingual anglophone prime minister, and his talented Liberal associate Ernest Lapointe.
It made sense for Pearson’s Liberals, dependent for their electoral success on a huge whack of Quebec seats, to prioritize language, although, importantly, Mr. Pearson’s specific concern was not bilingual leadership but Quebecois leadership. And given the new threat to national unity, it also made sense for Progressive Conservatives to heed Quebec’s concerns and aspirations.
Mr. Diefenbaker’s successor as PC leader was Robert Stanfield, who, while unilingual, supported incoming Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s bilingualism policies, most notably the Official Languages Act, which gave French and English equal status in the government of Canada.
The lesson taken by Progressive Conservatives from Mr. Stanfield’s three successive defeats at the hands of Mr. Trudeau was that bilingualism was a leadership imperative. Anglo Bob managed just nine Quebec seats in three elections. Each of his successors – whether leading the Progressive Conservatives, the Canadian Alliance, or the Conservative Party of Canada – has been functionally bilingual (Reform Party leader Preston Manning was not).
Yet with the exception of a Quebecker, Brian Mulroney, who won 58 and 63 Quebec seats in the 1984 and 1988 elections (more on him in a moment), none of Anglo Bob’s bilingual successors improved much on his record.
The bilingual Albertan, Joe Clark, won three Quebec seats in two federal elections (1979 and 1980). The bilingual British Columbian Kim Campbell took one in 1993. The fluently bilingual Jean Charest and a rehabilitated Joe Clark, leading the rump of the PC party in 1997 and 2000 respectively, earned six seats between them.
Mr. Manning’s Reform Party did not win a Quebec seat in 1993 or 1997. The Canadian Alliance’s Stockwell Day, a bilingual Albertan, matched that record with no Quebec seats in 2000.
After merging the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform/Alliance movement into the new Conservative Party of Canada, the bilingual Albertan/Ontarian Mr. Harper averaged seven seats in Quebec over five elections. Andrew Scheer, a bilingual Saskatchewanian, succeeded Mr. Harper and won 10 in Quebec last year.
Election after election, Conservatives choose bilingual leaders with an eye to cracking the Quebec electorate. Election after election, they fail. In 15 attempts since the end of the Diefenbaker/Pearson era, bilingual non-Quebeckers leading the Conservative, Progressive Conservative, or the Canadian Alliance parties have won 66 seats in Quebec, an average 4.4 a party per outing.
They fail because Quebec isn’t attracted to bilingual leaders from outside Quebec. In every election since the retirement of Mr. Pearson, Quebec has given the vast majority of its seats to a Quebecker. What Quebec wants is what the Americans call a favourite son (presumably a favourite daughter would do, as well): one of their own, a Brian Mulroney, a Gilles Duceppe, a Jack Layton.
Having a favourite son as leader is no guarantee of success in Quebec, as Tom Mulcair and Gilles Duceppe learned on getting clocked by another favourite son, Justin Trudeau, in 2015. But running a bilingual non-Quebecker in the province is a sure route to failure for any party. It doesn’t even work for Liberals, as John Turner, Paul Martin and Michael Ignatieff have learned. Each was soundly beaten by a favourite son.
Mr. Mulroney is the exception who proves the rule for Conservatives. He won his leadership by promising the PCs a long-sought triumph in Quebec and, as a favourite son (the only one to ever lead the PC party at strength), he delivered. He imposed what was essentially a Liberal strategy on the Conservative party, operated a Quebecentric government, and blew the PCs to smithereens. The party’s western base fell into the hands of Mr. Manning and the PCs soon ceased to exist.
The fundamental difference between the Liberal and Conservative traditions in Canada is that one needs Quebec, the other needs the west.
Just as no non-Quebec anglophone has made a substantial dent in Quebec since Mr. Pearson, no Quebecker apart from Mr. Mulroney has won the west in a federal election. Indeed, it’s worse than that: Only twice in modern times has a Quebec leader other than Mr. Mulroney won a single western province in a federal election. Pierre Trudeau won most of B.C. in 1968 and Jean Chrétien most of Manitoba in 1993.
The record of Quebeckers in the west is at least as dismal as the record of non-Quebeckers in Quebec, and it is no coincidence that the three largest spasms of western alienation occurred with Quebeckers leading the federal government: Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Justin Trudeau (and things weren’t much better under Mr. Chrétien).
It’s time Conservatives recognize the reality of their party, scrap the notion of winning Quebec with bilingual leaders, and concentrate on finding leaders who will win the most seats in Ontario, the West, and Atlantic Canada. The CPC needs to judge leaders on their appeal, knowledge, intelligence, policies, experience, demonstrable competence, character, work ethic, etc. If the best available person also happens to be bilingual and capable of picking up four seats in Quebec, fine, but that’s irrelevant so far as electoral success is concerned.
Liberals will argue that a prime minister of Canada needs to speak to Canadian francophones in their native tongue. It’s smart of Liberals to press that view. It makes the Conservatives (if they listen) less effective, and it makes a virtue of the fact that Liberals, hugely dependent on Quebec, have more limited leadership options than Conservatives. For 50 years, Liberals have been unable to hold government without a Quebec leader.
Accepting the reality of the CPC’s situation, something easier today with the separatist threat in abeyance, opens the party to a world of new leadership possibilities. Just 18 per cent of Canadians are conversant in both French and English. The party would no longer be dismissing out of hand 83 per cent of Canada’s political talent (and 90 per cent of non-Quebeckers) to no electoral advantage whatsoever. It could also stop watering its message on such important issues as religious freedom, supply management and SNC-Lavalin in order to chase Quebec pipe dreams.
Mr. Harper demonstrated that Conservatives can win comfortable majorities without strength in Quebec and this gets easier over time. Since the 1960s, Quebec’s share of Canada’s population has declined to 23 per cent from 29 per cent; its share of parliamentary seats has declined correspondingly. French-speaking Quebecois have shrunk to 18 per cent from 24 per cent of Canada’s population. Statistics Canada sees these trends continuing, if not accelerating, long into the future.
Not only will Quebec be a smaller piece of Canada; it will be less like the Quebec of the past 50 years, with more ethnocultural diversity and a relatively smaller economy.
Meanwhile, the west has been growing, its share of parliamentary seats has been increasing, and these trends are likely to continue.
In round numbers, the west’s population is 11 million (Quebec is eight million). In low-growth population projections by StatsCan, the west will have 13.5 million people by 2038 (Quebec 8.7 million). The more Canada grows, the bigger the gap becomes. In Statscan’s high-growth scenarios, the West will have 16.7 million people by 2038, Quebec 10 million. We could be only five elections from these scenarios.
Any competent government will aspire to govern well in all corners of the country. The Conservative Party’s best option for governing well in Quebec is to resurrect the idea of a Quebec lieutenant, a capable favourite son or daughter trusted by Quebeckers and well-entrenched in either the province’s federal or provincial politics. It is a less fraudulent approach than pretending that a Stockwell Day or a Joe Clark can “speak the language” of Quebeckers. Technically, perhaps, they can. But so far as Quebeckers are concerned, they don’t, they can’t, they never will.
Canada is too large and diverse a country for one personality to resonate throughout its whole. Mr. Trudeau is learning this now, leaning on a native Albertan, Chrystia Freeland, as his western lieutenant. There is no shame in this. Canada has been always been too much for one person.
Recognizing Canada’s diversity and sharing power with regional lieutenants (and regional caucuses) would also be a welcome means of decentralizing the overwhelming power of the Prime Minister’s Office in Canadian politics. It would re-establish the principle that it takes a government, rather than one individual, to lead the country. Everyone wins.
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