Graham Fraser is a Senior Fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, and was the Commissioner of Official Languages from 2006-2016.
As the leadership campaign for the Conservative Party kicks off, considerable energy is being devoted to analyzing the bilingualism of the various candidates and potential candidates. Some, such as Peter MacKay and Pierre Poilievre, are having the quality of their French evaluated by people who don’t actually speak the language, and having their evaluations challenged by people who do.
And some analysts, such as Kenneth Whyte, point to the majority victories of John Diefenbaker and Stephen Harper as evidence that the Conservative Party does not need support in Quebec or in other parts of French-speaking Canada in order to form a government. However, those majorities did not last longer than one term, in part because of a failure to hold support in Quebec.
This is an analysis that ignores some of the key dynamics of leadership campaigns and election campaigns, and a key political reality. In Canada, mastery of both official languages is a leadership competency. This is recognized in the public service; the famous “C” level for oral interaction for executives requires the person being evaluated to be able to explain a complex issue in their second language, to be persuasive, to intervene in a conflict at work, supervise an employee or give advice. These are not language criteria; they are leadership criteria. Similarly, anyone who is seeking a political leadership position must be able to explain, persuade, intervene, supervise or advise in both of Canada’s official languages
As Brian Mulroney pointed out repeatedly when he ran for the Progressive Conservative leadership, there are 100 constituencies with a significant French-speaking population.
When Mr. Harper first became prime minister in 2006, he discovered that all but one of the Conservative MPs from Quebec barely spoke English. The two parliamentary secretaries of the minister of agriculture discovered to their surprise that they did not have a common language.
The history of Canadian political leadership selections is littered with the wreckage of the campaigns of unilingual candidates. John Crosbie’s campaign evaporated in 1983 when he snapped at reporters that he didn’t speak Chinese either. Belinda Stronach saw her campaign fizzle out before it started when she stammered “En Anglais, s’il vous plaît” when asked a simple question in French.
Those leaders who could not comfortably answer questions in French suffered because of it. Ed Broadbent was ineffective in the French-language debate in 1988, and it left him exhausted and demoralized. Preston Manning was humiliated by his inability to participate in the French-language debate in 1993 where he could only deliver a prepared statement, and his advertising campaign of “No more leaders from Quebec” proved to be fatal to the Reform Party’s attempt to expand into Ontario. Ontario voters have consistently evaluated political leaders on their ability to communicate with Quebec voters in French, even if they themselves do not speak the language.
Times have changed in a number of ways. In the years of Pierre Trudeau and Mr. Mulroney, a majority of the influential reporters and columnists in the English-language media were unilingual anglophones and there was a barely disguised resentment of the emergence of bilingualism as a prerequisite for leadership. Now, the reverse is true. Along with the shrinkage of regional representation in the Ottawa press corps, I have observed a corresponding increase in the number of bilingual reporters and columnists in the national media.
As a result, a unilingual leader will face a merciless series of evaluations from journalists who have invested the time and energy to become bilingual and can’t understand anyone who wants to be the prime minister of an officially bilingual country who has neglected to do that.
We have two linguistic, intellectual and judicial traditions in this country. And there are four million French-speaking Canadians who speak no English. Anyone who wants to understand the country as a whole needs to understand them and their world; anyone who wants to play a leadership role in this country needs to be able to communicate with them.
In Canadian politics, there is a word for political leadership candidates and political leaders who are not bilingual: loser.
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