Do federal party leaders need to be bilingual?

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Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

When William Lyon Mackenzie King succeeded the fluently bilingual Wilfred Laurier as Liberal leader one hundred years ago, he could not speak any French. Nonetheless, in part because he was known to be Laurier's choice, most Quebec Liberals supported King over his four rivals.

King enjoyed widespread support in Quebec and among francophones outside Quebec throughout his long career, which only ended in the late 1940s. During all that time, he never made a speech, or gave an interview, or took part in a debate, in French. 

More recently, in the 1960s, Lester Pearson, whom history regards as one of our most consequential prime ministers, managed to lead the Liberal party and govern with significant support from francophones throughout the country, without the ability to speak any but the most rudimentary French.

The same was true of Pearson's predecessor, Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker. He won overwhelming support in Quebec in one election, that of 1958. 

In fact, for more than a century, the only bilingual Canadian prime ministers were the three francophones: Laurier, Louis St. Laurent and Pierre Trudeau. None of the anglophone prime ministers, from John A. Macdonald to Robert Borden to Pearson, could speak anything approaching fluent French.

When bilingualism became a basic requirement  

That only changed in 1979 with the election of the bilingual Albertan, Progressive Conservative Joe Clark. Since that time, neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives have selected a unilingual anglophone leader. 

Liberals John Turner and Paul Martin spoke French fluently. Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney spoke French so well francophones thought it was his first language. His successor Kim Campbell's French was not perfect, but she could deliver speeches, conduct interviews and answer questions in the House quite comfortably in French. 

Reform party leader Preston Manning could not speak French, and his party did not even run candidates in Quebec. But when that party merged with the Progressive Conservatives, the new entity chose as leader one of the few Reform MPs who was bilingual: Stephen Harper. 

The new Conservative leader made a point of giving prominent roles to his bilingual MPs, among them: Jason Kenney, James Moore, Shelly Glover, Chris Alexander and Joe Oliver. The new Conservative party also moved away from the Reform movement's skepticism about official bilingualism and recognized Quebec as a distinct society.

As for the New Democrats, they have had an up-and-down record on bilingual leaders. 

Their first leader, Tommy Douglas, was not bilingual. The second, David Lewis, spoke excellent French. The next one, Ed Broadbent, worked hard on his French. His accent was never great, but his grammar and vocabulary were solid. That gained him a lot of respect in Quebec and francophone Canada.

After Broadbent, the party chose two leaders who could not speak credible French. 

At the 1989 NDP convention, which chose Broadbent's successor, there were no fluently bilingual candidates. But in 1995, two of the three contenders, Lorne Nystrom and Svend Robinson, were fluently bilingual. The party, however, chose the one candidate who could not speak French.

Then, in 2003, the NDP selected bilingual Jack Layton and all that changed. Layton could not only speak colloquial French quite well, if not perfectly, he could competently crack jokes in his second language -- not an easy feat. With "le bon Jack" as leader, the NDP became, for the first time, a force to be reckoned with in Quebec. 

In the two New Democratic leaders' races following Layton's death in 2011, most of the candidates were bilingual -- some, such as Niki Ashton, quite comfortably so. In the most recent race, in 2017, only one of the candidates struggled with the French language, Charlie Angus, and that probably hurt his chances.

Now it is the Conservatives' turn to elect a new leader, and they will have to face and deal with the issue of bilingualism. 

The knocks against outgoing leader Andrew Scheer are that he is too socially conservative for the majority of voters, that he is a mediocre communicator, and that he does not have a coherent climate change policy. But many have also pointed out that under fire in televised debates Scheer's French, which might have been good enough for his role as Speaker of the House, was halting and not always coherent. 

Commentators and party activists are mentioning many names of potential new Conservative leaders. Prominent among them are Peter MacKay and Rona Ambrose, neither of whom has demonstrated fluency in French. It is possible they have been working on their French language skills since stepping away from politics. We might find out soon.

Other potential Conservative leadership aspirants are quite comfortably bilingual, among them Erin O'Toole, Michael Fortier and Michael Chong. But will Conservative party members care?

To appeal to many non-francophones a leader must speak French

The fact is that it is not only necessary to have better-than-average French to appeal to Canada's eight million or so francophones; French language capacity matters, in many ways, to other voters as well. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's surprisingly strong performance in two French language TV debates during the 2019 campaign created media buzz that helped him more in the rest of Canada than in Quebec. 

By contrast, Andrew Scheer's disappointing performances in those two debates weakened his campaign nationally, as well as in Quebec.

Back in the 1990s, NDP leader Alexa McDonough, then leading a party that had been devastated in the previous election, was terrified of taking part in French language TV debates. 

McDonough was worried she would not understand questions posed to her and insisted on using a headset to receive an English translation of everything that was said. She had no choice but to respond in French however. 

The results were cringe-worthy. Even when questions were sympathetic to NDP policies, such as one on the need for a national childcare program, the NDP leader lacked the vocabulary to effectively exploit the opening. 

At the time, I asked a senior NDP staffer why they even bothered taking part in the French language debates. The party was in rebuilding mode at the time, hoping to regain seats in the Prairies, Ontario and British Columbia, and make a breakthrough in Atlantic Canada. Quebec was not a priority for them. 

The staffer's answer was instructive. 

"Even if you have no chance in Quebec, you cannot expect Canadian nationalists in downtown Toronto to support you if you don't make a serious effort to communicate in French," he explained.

To some, bilingualism might seem an unfair barrier to many good people who aspire to national political leadership. But if the shoe were on the other foot, how would English speakers react? 

Nobody has ever suggested that a person who spoke only French could lead a federal party. Indeed, there were two recent francophone leaders who did not have total fluency in English. 

One was Jean Chrétien, who overcame his linguistic deficiencies with old-style charm and affability. Sadly, for the other -- Stéphane Dion -- he did not possess Chrétien's uncanny ability to connect with voters beyond the strictures of language. Dion and his Liberal party paid the price at the polls.

Canada is not the country it was in 1867 or 1937 or 1967. 

The current political and cultural fact of life is that it is hard to imagine a viable leader of any major federal party who could not campaign vigorously and convincingly in both official languages.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

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