Language politics return to Canada

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Justin Trudeau not speaking English during a town hall in Quebec is less of a political problem than Conservative leadership candidate O’Leary not being able to speak French.


Published first on Monday, January 23, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—The politics of language and the language of politics are as Canadian as hockey.

Last week, the Liberals and Conservatives were both facing heat on Quebec’s hot-button language issue.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in trouble for speaking too much French, and Conservative candidate Kevin O’Leary for not speaking enough.

Both were defending their language choices for different reasons. Both faced the wrath that can only be unleashed by the politics of language in Canada.
Trudeau, in Sherbrooke, Que., on his cross-country tour, waded into the language issue, by answering all questions during the town hall debate in French, even those that were asked in English.

He prefaced his language switch with a comment in English that “since we’re in Quebec, I’ll respond in French.” Trudeau had obviously decided in advance to stick to the preferred language in every province.  

He spoke mostly English in provinces that are designated as unilingual English, and vice versa in Quebec. The only Canadian province designated bilingual is New Brunswick.

But federal language policy guarantees every Canadian the right to receive federal services in the language of their choice, regardless of where they live.

In pursuit of that right, at least two people have taken the prime minister to task by filing complaints with the official languages commissioner. Those complaints guarantee that this issue is not going to go away any time soon.

It also puts the prime minister in the enviable position of defending his use of the French language in Quebec. This politics of language may actually reinforce support amongst francophones who criticize Trudeau for not being French enough. With a francophone father and an anglophone mother, Trudeau is truly comfortable in both languages but has been denigrated publicly for thinking in English and being less  fluent in his father’s mother tongue.

Holding any political event in Quebec always puts the language issue under the spotlight. Had Trudeau simply responded in the language of the questioner, he might actually have spent more time speaking English, which could have caused a different kind of political flak.

His team obviously calculated that, in the long term, risking the ire of Quebec anglophones was less dangerous than appearing too English in Quebec. He does, however, run the risk of falling short on his avowed support for bilingualism.

If that ever-present language dilemma is all too complicated for politics, Trudeau has a less intractable problem than that of Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary.

The television host announced his candidacy the day after after the party’s only French-language debate so he could avoid exposing his ineptitude in Canada’s official Gallic tongue. Montreal-born O’Leary professes his love for Quebecers but doesn’t believe fluency in French is a sine quae non for political leadership.

His answer when questioned about the importance of French is that he speaks the language of jobs, and that is what Quebecers want to hear. But fellow Tory candidate and fluent French speaker Maxime Bernier challenged that contention during another recent debate. “Sure, Quebecers are happy to speak English to tourists. But that doesn’t mean you can govern Italy without speaking Italian.”

With one-quarter of the delegates to the Conservative leadership coming from Quebec ridings, mastery of French is a must. Seventeen years older than Trudeau, O’Leary grew up in a different time. But O’Leary attended school in Quebec, and even credits McGill University with curing his dyslexia. The fact that a native son cannot even speak the majority language is puzzling.

And to assume that his inability to speak French is a non-issue reflects a deep  misunderstanding of Quebec and Canadian politics. O’Leary’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of fluency is a political mistake of gargantuan proportions. Perhaps the reality that the candidate has spent most of his adult life living outside the country has distorted his political judgment.

Even before O’Leary entered the race, fellow candidate and former minister Chris Alexander put the issue bluntly. “One cannot understand Canada and one cannot prepare to govern Canada without understanding Quebec,” said Alexander, a former Immigration minister.

Now that O’Leary is officially in the race, language will loom large in Conservative conversations over the next few months.

Trudeau made a mistake in not responding to a question in the town hall participant’s language of choice. But his language problem pales in comparison with that of O’Leary.  

For a native-born Quebecer to speak too much French in his home province is explicable. To speak no French at all is not.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era Cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.