Canadian political leaders trip over tongues

Posted 1.30.17

Say what you will about former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper (insert snide or sentimental comment here: ... ), he made a determined effort from an early age to learn and speak French.

There's a video out there on the Internet from 1991 where Harper, then described as a Reform Party advisor, gamely attempts to explain to a Radio-Canada interviewer why a western protest party was seeking to expand its base to eastern Canada.

In 1991, remember, we were two years away from the election that would reduce Brian Mulroney's mighty Progressive Conservative majority government to two seats, make Bloc Quebécois chief Lucien Bouchard leader of her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, thrust Reform leader Preston Manning into the waiting room of power, and hand Jean Chrétien the ticking time-bomb of Quebec's fury over the Meech Lake Accord debacle.

Harper was 32 at the time, a resident of Calgary since his days at university there -- hardly a franco-friendly environment -- but his French, as tortured it was, was positively masterful compared to what came out of the mouths of many of the aspirants to succeed him as Conservative leader (and prime minister) at the recent debate in Quebec City.

Of the 13 lined up on stage, with the exception of local favourites Steven Blaney and Maxime Bernier, both of whom are certifiably bilingual, there were only a few hopefuls who might be able to hold their own against the Montreal anglo French of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a future leaders debate.

Assuming Harper's Conservatives embrace Mulroney's Law that states the path to a majority government must pass through Quebec and its 78 seats, and thus it's essential the leader speak both official languages, the field of passably bilingual candidates narrows abruptly.

Your scribe, passably bilingual himself, was witness to the often painful, sometimes risible efforts of Tory contenders to communicate in French to a packed hall of party faithful and national media at the Centre des Congrès. It really didn't matter what they said, everyone knew this was a language proficiency test, not a policy one.

Of the 11, and in the notable and scorned absence of Kevin O'Leary, IMHO only former Ontario MP (and diplomat) Chris Alexander, and Vancouver businessman Rick Peterson possessed a natural facility in French; neither appeared to be reading from briefing books which was the case with pretty much all the other candidates. Of the two, Peterson's French was perhaps the most impressive given its improbability; he learned it while playing professional hockey in France where he subsequently studied and worked for 10 years.

Beyond Alexander and Peterson, candidates Michael Chong, Pierre Lemieux, Andrew Saxton, and Andrew Sheer are within reach of Harper's stilted level of French. Bilingual or not, Chong may be called to answer for his resignation from the Conservative cabinet as intergovernmental affairs minister over Harper's 2006 motion to declare Québécois a nation (within a united Canada).

In the case of Saskatchewan MP Sheer, a former speaker of the House of Commons, much would seem to be riding on his ability to improve his French, given he has the support of four of the 12 Conservative MPs in Quebec.

An opportunity in Quebec may await whoever emerges as leader at the Conservative convention in late May in Toronto. Which brings us back to Trudeau and his controversial town hall appearance in Sherbrooke last week.

Suffice it to say, his refusal to speak English has left the Quebec anglo community puzzled and angry. It is even possible, should such resentment fester and grow until the next election, some crucial Quebec seats may be in play if English-speaking voters shop around for alternatives with more sensitivity to their reality than the Liberal leader demonstrated at the Townships dog and pony. Obviously, that sensitivity is best expressed in both official languages.

That's something another federal party choosing a new leader this year might also keep in mind.

Peter Black's columns appear regularly, first in the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph and the Sherbrooke Daily Record.


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