Where are the truly bilingual federal Conservative leadership candidates?

By Steve Paikin - Published on Jan 25, 2017
Brian Mulroney's proficiency in French proved transformative for Canada's conservative movement. (NATO Association of Canada/Creative Commons)



One of the most exciting leadership conventions I ever covered took place more than 30 years ago, in Ottawa. The Progressive Conservative chief, Joe Clark, had put his leadership on the line, having failed to secure what he considered a satisfactory level of support from party delegates at the preceding leadership review.

So there we were, thousands of delegates and members of the media, all descending on the Ottawa Civic Centre in June 1983 to watch history unfold.

One thing quickly became apparent after listening to all the speeches: one candidate had an enormous advantage, because his ability to speak both of Canada’s official languages was just so much better than everyone else’s.

Joe Clark’s French was awfully impressive for someone from Alberta who had learned it late in life, but you’d never confuse him for someone who was perfectly bilingual. Michael Wilson’s French was pretty rough. So was David Crombie’s. John Crosbie could barely speak a word of it — and he compounded that problem by saying he couldn’t speak Chinese, but that wouldn’t stop him from doing the job, either.

No, there was only one candidate who could speak French effortlessly: Brian Mulroney. And Tories were so impressed with his linguistic facility, and his argument that the party just couldn’t afford to write off the third of the country that was Francophone, that Mulroney won the leadership in a thrilling, four-ballot contest.

From that moment forward, Canadian politics was shaped by a presumption that the leader of every national party with a chance to form the government needed to be able to speak both official languages extremely well. And if you look at the politicians who’ve been tasked with leading those parties ever since, almost every single one meets that standard: from Conservatives Jean Charest, Stockwell Day, Peter MacKay, and Stephen Harper to Liberals John Turner, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, and Justin Trudeau. (Preston Manning of the Reform Party was a notable exception). New Democrats Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair had the same capacity.

Fast forward to 2017, and one wonders whether the Conservative Party no longer believes that fluency in both English and French is a sine qua non of national political leadership. With Kevin O’Leary’s entry into the race last week, there are now 14 candidates vying for the CPC crown. A recent all-candidates’ debate in Québec City demonstrated that of the prime contenders, only half a dozen could be said to be truly bilingual (Maxime Bernier, Steven Blaney, Chris Alexander, Michael Chong, Andrew Scheer, and Rick Peterson, according to Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert). Of concern: three high-profile Ontario contenders — Lisa Raitt, Erin O’Toole, and Kellie Leitch — are miles away from being bilingual, despite their many years working in Ottawa.

It’s also fair to say that none of the 14 candidates has the kind of ease in both official languages that, say, Mulroney or the current prime minister do.

This has some Conservatives yearning for that perfectly bilingual candidate — and so far, they're out of luck.

I wrote several months ago about the unsuccessful push to get former Quebec premier and PC Party leader Jean Charest into the race. Similarly, there have been failed attempts to get former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord to kick the tires on a leadership bid. Born in Québec, Lord had an Anglophone father and Francophone mother and was raised to be perfectly bilingual in New Brunswick. He became premier in 1999 at just 33 and served for seven years.

Today, Lord, just 51 years old,  is extremely well known in the Maritimes, a region where the Conservatives were shut out in the 2015 election. And he still hasn’t got politics out of his blood. But like Charest, the prospect of spending a decade in opposition working seven days a week, and taking a huge pay cut in the process, doesn’t seem all that appealing.

So conservatives hoping for a candidate with Mulroney- or Trudeau-like linguistic skills had better keep looking — or at least prepare themselves for disappointment.

Perhaps this says something about the importance English-speaking supporters of the Conservative Party place on attracting French-speaking voters these days. After all, Stephen Harper proved the party could win a majority government by putting together a strong coalition of support from Ontario and the West, with a decent showing in Atlantic Canada and only a handful of seats from Québec. It's a reasonable assumption that's the new Conservative governing coalition in the 21st century.

If so, that will come as sad news to those Conservatives who want a competitive party in French-speaking Canada, and perhaps to all Canadians that want at least three national parties whose leaders are as committed to bilingualism as they are.

Photo courtesy of NATO Association of Canada and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version)

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