The Conservative Leadership Race and Official Bilingualism

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Apparently neither erstwhile Conservative adviser Tom Flanagan nor Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson saw the two French-language leadership debates in the 2019 federal election.[1] If they had, they would hardly be arguing that a future leader of the Conservative party need not be fluently bilingual. The difficulties of Andrew Scheer during those recent debates surely should have put that outdated idea to rest, if the past fifty years of Canadian politics have not.

Mr. Scheer, it will be recalled, was described during the last Conservative leadership race as fluently bilingual, apparently on the basis of his role as Speaker of the House of Commons. Yet in the debates he struggled mightily on several occasions to make himself understood, and his accent left much to be desired. His plight was certainly not helped by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who carefully explained to Quebecers, in far superior French, how he had deliberately chosen to learn French while growing up in Toronto, because it was a language he loved.  Flanagan himself acknowledges that Stephen Harper worked diligently to acquire a much better level of fluency in French before entering politics despite having spent most of his time in western Canada, thereby depriving Scheer of the western Canada excuse. Of course it also deprives leadership frontrunner Peter Mckay of the ridiculous excuse that he was busy working in Toronto over the past decade and had few opportunities to practice his French. 

Perhaps Flanagan could be forgiven for thinking that McKay could meet the necessary level of linguistic competence for a federal party leader, since his article appeared four days before McKay’s disastrous leadership launch. Ibbitson has no such fig leaf, having written his opinion piece a full week after that debacle. His argument that the party should lower the bar for competence in French, so that a ‘working knowledge’ of the language would be sufficient, is breathtaking. It flies in the face of the rapid and scathing criticism by the Quebec media of McKay’s wobbly efforts to communicate in French at that launch. One article in particular, by Mario Dumont in the Journal de Montreal [2] cuts to the heart of the matter. Not only do francophone Quebecers expect to hear from federal leaders in their official language, but Quebec Conservatives insist on it. If the party hopes to hang on to the few seats it has left in that province it will need to pay close attention, or those votes will wander over to the Bloc Quebecois. And Flanagan of all people, who originally devised the three pillar strategy with Harper, (in which Quebec was the third pillar), should know this. Harper certainly did.

Even more astonishing is the fact that several leading Tory lights are now rehashing arguments that consumed the party decades ago. From fluently bilingual, there is now a move afoot to suggest that some very basic level of competence in French, whatever that might mean, would be perfectly acceptable. Others, such as MP Michelle Rempel, think that bilingualism itself is an overrated attribute in a Conservative leader, one which tends to diminish the importance of other skills and talents and exclude many otherwise competent people. The very fact that Ontario Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, (whose grasp of French is rudimentary at best and whose heavy English accent is a serious barrier to comprehension), is considered to be in second place in the race as the only other candidate likely to seriously challenge McKay, suggests the party is functioning in some kind of time warp.

For the benefit of those concerned, here are some facts that may help to undermine those outdated views before they become too entrenched. According to a 2016 poll commissioned by the Commissioner of Official Languages, some 86% of Canadians believe their prime minister should be bilingual. It’s simply part of the job description. Or, as Le Journal de Montreal bluntly stated in a recent headline, it will be impossible for the Conservatives to beat the Trudeau Liberals without a bilingual leader.[3] A Leger and Leger poll conducted a week after McKay’s launch, sampling across the country, found nearly two thirds of Canadians believe the next leader of the Conservative party should be bilingual. Not surprisingly, outside of Quebec support for a bilingual Conservative leader is highest in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Needless to say these are the very regions in which the Conservatives need to do better if they are to expand sufficiently from their base in western Canada to win. Most striking was the comparison the Leger poll found on voting intentions. As of early February, Canadians’ opinions had changed little from the October 2019 election. The parties were in a statistical tie, albeit with reversed positions, the Liberals receiving the support of 34% to the Conservatives’ 32%. But if the respondents were told the next Conservative leader would not be bilingual, those results changed dramatically. Liberal fortunes soared to 38% and the Conservatives plummeted to 24%, barely ahead of the NDP at 20%.  According to projections by 338 Canada based on these numbers, this would result in a Liberal majority of 200 seats.  

Hopefully someone in the Conservative Party is paying attention.

[1]  See Tom Flanagan.“Now More than Ever, Peter McKay is the Right Choice for Conservative leader”, Globe and Mail, Jan 21, 2020. and  John Ibbitson. “Tories Need to Determine Whether their Leader Needs to Excel at French” Globe and Mail, Feb 3, 2020

[2] Mario Dumont. “Allo Peter! Allo Erin!”, Journal de Montreal. Feb 1, 2020

[3] Le Journal de Montreal.  “Sondage: Impossible de battre Trudeau sans un chef bilingue”. February 1, 2020