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A friend who was born and raised in the U.K., but has lived most of his adult life in Canada, asks if there is not a law requiring that a Canadian prime minister be bilingual.

The answer is no, there is not.

There are no legislated or constitutional pre-requirements for Canadian prime ministers, as there are for U.S. presidents.

The U.S. constitution specifies that presidents must be not only U.S. citizens, they must be “natural born” Americans, and they must be at least 35 years of age, not the simple age of majority.

Historically the large majority of Canadian prime ministers could not speak French, including the first, John A. Macdonald. We have not had any prime ministers, however, who spoke French but not English.

The Canadian federal government only became officially bilingual more than a century after confederation, in 1969.

Until that point, only three of the 15 prime ministers were comfortably fluent in both French and English. Two were of mixed English or Irish and French heritage: Louis St. Laurent and Pierre Trudeau, and the other, Wilfrid Laurier, had received a significant part of his education in English, and was fluently bilingual. 

Pierre Trudeau’s predecessor, Lester Pearson, spoke very little French, and what little he did speak, he spoke quite badly.

Those were different times.

Pearson was prime minister for five years, from 1963 to 1968, but his two minority governments were among the most productive in our history. They gave us the public health insurance system we have now, the Canada pension plan (twinned by the Quebec pension plan), and the maple leaf flag.

Pearson also set up the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (the so-called B&B Commission), which planted the seeds for his successor’s official languages policy.

That policy never intended that every federal civil servant or politician should be fluent in both official languages.

Its main aim was that Canadians should be able to access federal services and programs in either English or French, and that the federal public service should be equally accessible to both francophones and anglophones. Prior to that time, the public service operated, for all intents and purposes, entirely in English.

Whether or not a prime minister spoke French seemed unimportant

When Laurier brought bilingualism to the prime ministership, in 1896, he was an exception. All of his predecessors and all of his successors for nearly four decades following his defeat in 1911 were unilingual, and that includes William Lyon MacKenzie King, who headed the government for more than 20 years.

Nor did St. Laurent usher in an era of bilingualism when he took office in 1948. In 1957, when the unilingual John Diefenbaker defeated him, nobody much noticed the new PM’s near total lack of capacity in French.

It was Pierre Trudeau who, in effect, established the unwritten rule that a serious aspirant to the prime minister’s job had to speak at least competent French.

Joe Clark, who led the Conservatives to victory in 1979, was a westerner born and bred, but he worked hard on his French, which he used with increasing facility throughout his long political career.

Clark’s successor, Brian Mulroney, was a fluently bilingual Quebecker.

And when the old Progressive Conservative party merged with the upstart Canadian Alliance (itself the spawn of the Reform Party) it chose another bilingual leader, Stephen Harper.

Whatever else one can say about Harper, he worked hard to affirm Canada’s linguistic duality. As a rule, Harper opened his public comments in French, and he carefully and courteously answered all questions posed to him in French in that language.

The NDP was slower, or, at least, less consistent, than the other two parties in fully embracing the need for a leader to be bilingual.

As far back as the 1970s, the NDP had a fluently bilingual leader in David Lewis. (He was also, as it happens, the only Jew and the only non-Christian ever to lead a major party in Canada).

Lewis’ successor, Ed Broadbent, also worked hard on his French. Although he pronounced French words with a very obvious English accent, Broadbent spoke clearly and effectively.

However, the two leaders who followed Broadbent, Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough, had virtually no ability in French.

When McDonough took part in French language leaders’ debates she needed to hear the questions in English, through a headset.

Interestingly, at the time the party chose McDonough, in 1995, it rejected two other candidates who were both fluently and comfortably bilingual: Lorne Nystrom and Svend Robinson.

Back then, few in the political world or in the media seemed to consider the bilingualism issue to be of major importance.

For the NDP, Jack Layton changed all that. When he first took over in 2003, Layton’s French was a bit rocky. Having been raised in Quebec, Layton had picked up a credible, Québecois-sounding accent, but he made a lot of obvious grammatical mistakes. His subjects and verbs often disagreed, and he frequently got masculine and feminine wrong. The latter is a real bugaboo for English speakers, since, for the most part, gender does not exist in English.

By the time of the 2011 vote, Layton’s French was much improved, and the party’s success in Quebec was, in good measure, a result of that improvement.

All of the leading candidates to take over after Layton’s too early death spoke competent or fluent French. That includes Brian Topp, Nathan Cullen, Peggy Nash, Niki Ashton and Tom Mulcair.

Some believe it is no longer necessary to have a bilingual leader 

Today, five years later, both the Conservatives and New Democrats are in search of new leaders, and the need to be bilingual seems to have receded from the landscape, if it has not disappeared entirely.

Kevin O’Leary is the Conservative candidate most opinion polls put in the lead. He spent the early part of his life in Quebec, but does not speak French. At first, O’Leary argued it wasn’t necessary to be bilingual in order to be prime minister. After announcing his candidacy, he changed his tune, a bit, and said he would work on learning French. It is highly doubtful, however, he will have time to become bilingual by the time of the leadership vote. Many suspect the sincerity of his pledge to learn Canada’s other official language.

O’Leary is favoured in the polls right now, but he is far from the only Conservative leadership candidate with little or no French. After the recent French language debate in Quebec City — which O’Leary famously avoided — one Radio Canada commentator noted: “It was not a debate and it was not in French.”

As for the NDP, the possible candidate who has attracted most attention at this stage is northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, and he has, for now, only passable French.

To this writer’s knowledge, Angus — unlike such anglophone colleagues as Niki Ashton, Nathan Cullen, Megan Leslie and Peggy Nash — has never posed questions in the House in French. Nor has he very often engaged with French speaking journalists in their language.

There are reports that Charlie Angus is working hard on his French these days, and he does have a good base to start with. We’ll find out how well he is doing soon enough.  

Three other not-yet-declared candidates, Niki Ashton, Peter Julian and Jagmeet Singh, speak fluent French, and the one likely Quebec candidate, Guy Caron, speaks very comfortable English.

Avi Lewis, grandson of the NDP’s first bilingual leader, does not speak French with any degree of fluency, which is surprising for a middle class Canadian who came of age long after French immersion programs in schools became widely available.

In any case, the younger Lewis has said he is not running.

Former union leader Sid Ryan is, however, seriously considering a run, and he seems to have no French whatsoever.

Ryan appears to have a bizarre plan to name a female French-speaking co-leader or associate leader from Quebec. On the face if it, such an arrangement would be unworkable. It would certainly be offensive to a great many Quebecers. Would a serious political party ever consider naming a unilingual French leader and, then, to answer questions in English, provide him or her with an anglophone number two, of the opposite gender?

It is hard to imagine that Ryan is even serious in making this suggestion, in 2017, in Canada.

At the end of the last election campaign, the NDP ran into the dual buzz saws of an anti-niqab fear campaign and the desire of many voters to back the horse with the best chance to beat Harper.

Despite that, the party got 25 per cent of the vote in Quebec, and did even better among francophone Quebecers. Its 16 Quebec seats constitute its largest provincial contingent, followed by British Columbia’s, and the NDP is still very much on the political map in Quebec.

Does the party want to simply write that all off, long before the next election? Such would almost certainly be the result of choosing a unilingual, English-speaking leader.

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!


Image: Wikimedia Commons/Makaristos

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...