OTTAWA — The language skills of Conservative leadership candidates will be put to the test Tuesday night as they take the stage for a bilingual debate in Moncton, N.B., a campaign milestone expected to start narrowing the field of contenders.
“I think what people in the Conservative party will be looking for is who actually can and can’t speak French,” said Tim Powers, a Tory strategist.
“I don’t think you can win this job if you don’t do that,” said Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies.
All 14 of the people who have officially registered as candidates in the race to replace former prime minister Stephen Harper as party leader will participate in the debate, where questions will be asked and answered in both English and French without simultaneous translation.
This is point where observers and party members will be see which of them speaks the language well enough to have a shot at earning a share of the points allotted to any of the 78 electoral district associations in Quebec — the only province where the Conservatives saw growth in the last federal election — and be taken seriously as a candidate for prime minister.
Chris Alexander, Maxime Bernier, Steven Blaney, Michael Chong, Rick Peterson and Andrew Scheer are considered to be bilingual, whereas Kellie Leitch, Deepak Obhrai, Lisa Raitt and Brad Trost have trouble with French.
Pierre Lemieux, Dan Lindsay, Erin O’Toole and Andrew Saxton, can speak the language a little, with varying degrees of ease or difficulty.
Kevin O’Leary, the celebrity businessman who has been considering a bid but has not yet entered the race, does not speak French and also says he does not think it matters.
“I speak jobs very, very well and if you’re a Quebecer like I am, you also speak that language,” O’Leary said Monday.
A debate in Quebec City on Jan. 17 will be in French and the remaining two will also be in both official languages.
“It’s fast going to become a race of haves and have-nots in terms of that divide, in which a majority of the candidates standing won’t qualify,” said Chad Rogers, a Conservative strategist.
The ability to speak French is not the only divide, as Rogers said the ability to raise money, sign up members, gather endorsements and otherwise demonstrate growth will also be seen as signs of seriousness as the campaign gets close to the May 27 finish line.
Rogers, a founding partner at Crestview Strategy, compared leadership contests to icebergs.
“The debates at their most significant are only about one-tenth of the process. It just happens to be the part we can see above water,” he said.
One of the things both he and Powers said to watch for — as a sign of bigger things below the surface — are any apparent alliances between candidates, such as when a candidate with lesser standing criticizes a potential frontrunner, secretly on behalf of another.
Alexander is a fluently bilingual candidate who might be in the hot seat for entirely different reasons, as he is under criticism for not doing enough to stop what happened at a rally in Edmonton over the weekend, when some people in the crowd chanted that Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley should be thrown in jail.
The chant of “lock her up”, which echoed one heard at many campaign rallies for now U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, came as Alexander was speaking about Notley at a rally organized by Rebel Media, an online news and right-wing opinion outlet.
Alexander has since said he disapproved.
Chong said that while the right to free speech must always be defended, it must also be used responsibly.
“In chanting ‘lock her up’ at one point in the rally, members of the crowd, in their anger, urged undemocratic action more worthy of a dictatorship than Canada’s parliamentary democracy based on the rule of law,” he said in a statement Monday.
Obhrai also weighed in.
“We’re witnessing Trump-style politics invading Canada,” he said.