Canada's prime minister shouldn't need to be bilingual -

Canada’s prime minister shouldn’t need to be bilingual

Why bilingualism needn’t be a qualification to be PM, even as hopefuls for the Conservative leadership work on their French

Parliament Hill and the Library of Canada in the fall in Ottawa, Ont. on Oct, 18, 2012. Lars Hagberg/CP

Parliament Hill and the Library of Canada in the fall in Ottawa, Ont. on Oct, 18, 2012. Lars Hagberg/CP

Not much has changed in 150 years. The very first political controversy in the history of Canada—opening day of Parliament on Nov. 6, 1867, to be exact—should sound rather familiar to modern ears.

Before the House of Commons heard its first Speech from the Throne, and even before James Cockburn was named first Speaker of the House, Canada’s original political outrage reared its head. On day one, Quebec MP Joseph Dufresne rose “expressing his dissatisfaction at the nomination of Mr. Cockburn, on the ground that the gentleman could not speak the French language,” according to the official record of debates. Dufresne claimed an ability to converse in English and French was a “principle that lay at the foundation” of this new country.

Dufresne wasn’t successful in derailing Cockburn’s candidacy; his supporters noted he could understand French well enough to make rulings. But the notion that our political leaders must above all else be able to hold a conversation in both languages has since taken firm hold. It’s how we do things in Canada. But does it make any sense?

The putative candidacy of Kevin O’Leary in the Conservative leadership race has revived eternal Canadian handwringing over our leaders’ language skills. Montreal-born O’Leary admits he can’t speak French and has been widely mocked for putting off his decision to join the race until after a French-language debate in Quebec City next week, presumably to avoid embarrassing himself. After first claiming he didn’t need to speak French, O’Leary now says he’s “going to try” to learn the language.

COUNTERPOINT: Why should a PM speak French? Political reality.

Regardless of the specifics of O’Leary’s candidacy, it’s time to end this unwritten rule that no one can be considered a credible candidate for prime minister unless they speak both official languages. Potential leaders should be judged on the full range of their attributes; functional bilingualism is just one criteria of many, and not necessarily the crucial factor. Anything else risks shortchanging the country.

Kevin O'Leary, aka Mr. Wonderful, in Ottawa February 26, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Kevin O’Leary, aka Mr. Wonderful, in Ottawa February 26, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Of the 13 candidates hoping to replace Stephen Harper as Conservative party leader, perhaps four or five can be considered practically bilingual. The rest stumbled through the party’s first French-language debate in Moncton last month with a version of franglais familiar enough to anyone who’s ever struggled through high school French and then given up on the language altogether. (Save for trips to the wine store, of course.)

One of those Moncton strugglers, Ontario MP Michael Chong, joked that he speaks French as well as former prime minister Jean Chrétien speaks English. He’s got a point. Chretien’s mangling of both languages certainly didn’t prevent him for winning three consecutive majority governments.

MORE: Our profile of Michael Chong

With only 17 per cent of Canadians able to carry on a coherent conversation in English and French, mandatory bilingualism instantly disqualifies more than 80 per cent of the population from political leadership. Outside Quebec, the rate of bilingualism is less than 10 per cent. If the premise of representative government is that voters should be able to see themselves in their elected officials, strict adherence to a dual language requirement risks alienating the vast majority of the electorate, particularly those in English Canada. Who wants to vote for a party that would refuse to accept you as its leader?

There’s value, of course, in a leader being able to speak directly to the entire country, Quebec included, and all parties have good reasons to favour candidates with strong language skills. (Former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s inability to communicate with English Canada being an object lesson here.) But this should be considered one political calculation among many when picking a new leader. Knowledge of economics and global relations are also important. As are empathy, hard work and a winning smile.

MORE: The Tories’ Kevin O’Leary factor

Disqualifying good candidates solely on current language skills denies the country access to the skills of most Canadians, offers huge advantages to a tiny minority and forswears the possibility of personal improvement. Recall the political fury over the Harper government’s appointment of the eminently well-qualified but unilingual Michael Ferguson as federal auditor-general in 2011. Liberal MPs boycotted the vote in outrage; the federal commissioner of official languages called the process a “humiliation.” But Ferguson wasn’t applying for a job as Parliament Hill tourist guide. Today he’s proven to be exactly the sort of gimlet-eyed defender of Canadian taxpayers’ interests the office demands.

Halfway through his 10-year term, Ferguson is now earning grudging praise from some of his toughest critics: Quebec’s French-language media. Last month, La Presse asked “What has improved in Ottawa over the past five years? Answer: The French of Canada’s auditor general.” La Presse’s acknowledgement that Ferguson now speaks the language with “assurance” is a remarkable turnabout, and evidence that anyone with sufficient motivation can learn French on the job in Ottawa. If O’Leary decides to jump in the ring, he should be taken at his word that he’s planning to learn French. It’s no scandal if he isn’t bilingual at this very moment.

Choosing Canada’s next prime minister is a matter of voters ticking the boxes they consider important. Bilingualism may be a bigger box than most, but it isn’t the only one that matters.


Canada’s prime minister shouldn’t need to be bilingual

  1. How many francophone leaders have conservative members elected since Confederation? Charest inherited the position by default when the party ended up with two seats in 1993, and if you are my age you will remember that Mulroney’s name and fluency in English were determinant in overcoming the fact that he was from Quebec. So, to answer the question, none.

    But I agree with you. If the Conservatives wish to prove that they are acting on principle, this convention is a good opportunity to elect a unilingual francophone leader. Our current head of state has enough education, understanding and respect to address Canadians in both official languages, as she did again this New Year’s day. That should be enough for you.

    • P.S. I would be careful using the Stéphane Dion example. As I recall Mr. Dion was doing well in the polls after the debates. Then somebody did you a favour. That somebody broke the code of ethics of his profession, a gesture which your leader found to be deserving of a seat in the Senate. This eventually landed your party in a great big pile of sh.t.

  2. This is what separates the country, or breeds separation in the country, dumb, stupid articles like this, Oleary must have gotten this blogger to write this tripe, and it so divisive. That’s another thing i like about the Liberal Party, it is a bilingual party. I wonder if the french speaking members from Quebec of the con party feel comfortable with this not speaking to their province in its mother tongue. Remember, Dion had a problem communicating with the English speaking part of our country, and we know what happened to him. O’leary is a carpetbagger, just like Trump and Harper, and even Danny Williams suck the life and money out of the country, and leave a mess to the voters like they did in Newfoundland and Labrador. Example: Danny Williams when elected, was a millionaire, and the next day after he left office, he found out he was a billionaire, that’s what you get from people like this, rape and pillage the public trough and the people, then get out of Dodge, in short,’Carpetbaggers’.

    • Just to add, Danny Williams know owns his own city, also trying to suck all the business out of St. John’s, NL. now, to help develope his own world of Dannyville(Galway). I can see it in big lights now if Oleary is elected, O’learyville, hmhmm, now that is scary.

    • I agree that this is a stupid article. What if one of the parties offered a leader who could speak French only? Would the rest of Canada vote for him/her and just consider their qualifications as the author suggests? As for O’Trumpabe, I wonder how long it will be before one of his opponents points to his living in the US and saying “Not here for us”? Canada has 2 official languages and I believe any PM, even if not completely fluent, needs to be able to communicate in both.

  3. “Canada’s prime minister shouldn’t need to be bilingual” Effectively, he can only speek french!

    • The proof is in the pudding as the say. Canada has had a bilingual prime minister since the early seventies and any attempt to reverse this is pointless. Canada’s potential leaders should spend more time acquiring both official languages to communicate with all Canadians rather than convince us that it is not a mandatory job requirement.

    • That was true of Chretien-he sure couldn’t speak English!!

      • Prime Minister Chrétien spoke well enough to be understood. PM Joe Clark had quite the thick accent but everyone could see that he mastered the vocabulary. The point is that both of them understood that to communicate with Canadians it needed to be done in both official languages.

      • Chrétien never practiced language discrimination! He held the unique distinction of being our only Prime Minister who could speak neither of Canada’s official languages — at least without a strong accent!! What you got in “Henglish” is exactly what you also got “en franças”!!

  4. There’s no legal requirement, nor should there be, for a party leader to be bilingual. That there seems to be an imperative for it is not the result of anything but an unhappy tradition of catering to a fractious and malcontent minority. Canada is a bilingual country in name but not practice. Some 8% of Canadians are unilingual francophones. The rest speak and understand English to degrees better or worse than, say, Stephane Dion. California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Nevada and Colorado are in practice more bilingual than Canada, yet you don’t see them demanding Spanish language skills of their political leaders.

    • Canada is a bilingual country by law.

      S. 16 of the Canadian Charter:

       (1) English and French are the official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada.

      Parliament consists of the monarch, the Senate and the House of Commons. The prime minister forms a government in the name of the monarch. It’s her government. The prime minister, as the Queen, by law, must recognize the equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use. She gets it, hence she always speaks French and English in Canada. The Liberal Party gets it. Conservatives too often don’t get it and malcontent and fractious as they are always manage to get taken to court where they are defeated, at great great expense to Canadian taxpayers.

      The constitution is not a tradition. It is the law of Canada.

      There is no legal requirement for the prime minister of Canada to speak two languages, and I agree that there should not be. If you believe that the the law of the land is to be upheld, if you plan to respect the constitution, you respect the privileges of those who speak one or the other language to the person who forms a government in the name of the crown of Canada. Is it that difficult to find men and women of honour in the Conservative ranks?

      • I’m fully aware that we’re, by law, bilingual. However, we could pass a law declaring that margarine is a dietary equivalent of ice cream but you won’t see people pulling up to the drive-thru to order it as a chocolate-dipped cone. Ain’t gonna happen, just as language laws will not expand the use of French in Canada.
        Outside of the federal service, there are precious few instances where learning French will improve the circumstances of one’s life. That’s why focusing on French language skills as a pre-requisite to leadership is wrongheaded. National leadership should be an evolutionary process. Any adult who has spent a great deal of their finite resources of time and effort learning French in order to improve their chances at political leadership, is not using those resources to gain an understanding of how things work; the important things that make our society function. It’s far more vital for the leader of a capitalist industrial nation such as ours to have a understanding of how we have arrived at how we power our society (Hint: it was an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one) than being able to express vaguely progressive ideas at every whistle stop in the language of the audience’s choosing. An understanding of the nature of taxation, from a perspective of one who has actually paid taxes, is infinitely more vital in the long run than being able to converse colloquially with a minority group largely confined to a strip of land that runs a few hundred kilometers up and down the St. Lawrence.
        Lastly, there’s the issue of basic liberty. Language laws are a direct affront to basic liberty, and are a wrongful and unjust overstep of the arm of the state. You can live in a free country, or you can live in a country with language laws. It’s an either/or, and I would prefer freedom please and thank you.

        • Those are some very unfortunate arguments. You could try and learn French from reading cereal boxes, but to what end? One must remenber that language is not only a means of communicating, it shapes and defines our understanding of the world. Learning French (or English) is not what is important, a person can read a language from cue cards well enough to pretend to speak it. Bilingualism is the goal to strive for! Its the thought process made in that language that is important and renders the speaker familiar to the listener. Only then can there truly be understanding.

  5. I live in Quebec City and I voted for the Conservatives in 2015. If the new leader cannot talk to me in French, there are no chances that the CPP will get my vote next time! It’s that simple.

    No obligation for the leader to speak French, I agree. But that person would need to face the consequences of not being able to talk to an important part of the Canadian population.

  6. If the best of us in this country can’t be expected to be bilingual then how is there any hope for future generations to speak two languages. It’s such an undeniable advantage to speak multiple languages, what possible reason is there for our prime minister to not speak both languages?

    • Then close Canada. Finish it as a country because the constitution upon which Canada operates is very clear on the privileges of the two official languages within the institutions of parliament, which includes the crown and the person who exercises her powers as prime minister.

      There is always only 1 prime minister amongst 35 millions Canadians. It’s a position that requires certain skills that not all Canadians will have. If you are saying that English Canadians are not by nature capable of learning French, that’s your opinion, not mine. I think those who wish to become prime minister understand the responsibilities and obligations of the constitution. If they don’t, well, they should look for a different job!

      • I couldn’t have said it better ! I am surrounded by young Canadians that are learning French as a second language. Surely a future PM could build this into his career planning just like he would any other skill required for the job.

        • Several years ago, all three of my kids were fluent in French. As adults, they have learned that French language skills, and $1.99, gets you a side of fries. With the exception of government jobs, there are simply no careers where French fluency will improve your economic fortunes. High-minded concepts such as bilingualism don’t translate into the things that matter, such as being able to buy groceries, make a mortgage payment, absorb the cost of stupid government policies while paying the bills, etc. As Albertans, they have found the burdens of paying the taxes that aren’t being paid by the bilingual part of the country are substantial roadblocks towards more intellectually enlightening pursuits, such as keeping up with the French.
          Maybe if the French in this country focused less on language and more on economics, we Anglophones would have more free time to learn their guttural tongue.

          • “…..there are simply no careers where French fluency will improve your economic fortunes.”

            Absolutely incorrect. I have a family member who took French immersion going to school and now works for private industry and the fact she is bilingual has helped her immensely. And this is happening in Western Canada and not in Ontario or Quebec.

          • “As adults, they have learned that French language skills, and $1.99, gets you a side of fries. With the exception of government jobs, there are simply no careers where French fluency will improve your economic fortunes.”
            How about having access to a whole new world in terms of culture (literature, music, films…) + gaining valuable insight into what almost 25% of you country’s population think about federal politics (by reading newspapers in French for instance)? Does that count for peanuts? Let’s face it, you and your adult children are missing out on a whole lot more than just improved economic fortunes, but then again, that’s your choice.

  7. Two days ago I attended what was probably one of the most feel-good, pro-bilingualism retreat imaginable in Fredericton, New Brunswick – a province that is facing this bilingualism debate on a daily basis. At this retreat, we found ourselves in a room full of unilingual francophones, unlingual anglophones and bilingual New Brunswickers, sharing their thoughts on the gift that is learning two languages, and more importantly, two cultures, and talking about how we can further advance bilingualism and linguistic diversity in our province.

    I can’t believe I’m actually giving this article any merit and credence, but I feel moved by this event and have a few thoughts to share.

    – First, let’s admit above all that NEVER would a unilingual, yet absolutely brilliant and capable Francophone be considered seriously for the role of Prime Minister or any high level political role. Our first ever unilingual francophone Cabinet Minister faced a fury of hatred and criticism for not being able to speak English and is currently in Fredericton taking English immersion classes to “catch up”. This hasn’t exactly been the common practice for the multitude of unilingual Anglophone MPs that have governed our country to this day.
    – Striving for a position of PM or even Minister doesn’t happen overnight. At the very least, one aspiring political leader has probably been working towards this role for several years, possibly decades. There are many opportunities along the way to advance one’s language abilities. And if in all those years of professional development, pandering and studies you didn’t have the foresight to at least start learning the other language, then that doesn’t inspire a lot of trust.
    – Bilingualism is now enshrined in our constitution, it is a right, a means of protecting minority populations and allowing all Canadians to identify themselves in Canada’s highest authorities. You still have the Queen, give us the decency of being able to understand our Prime Minister and share our thoughts with him (and hopefully eventually her) coherently. The fact that we are still debating such a beautiful gift, a piece of our cultural heritage is shameful.

    So yes, our Prime Minister should be bilingual. At the very least, he/she should work towards being bilingual always. Now, let us please put this debate to rest and look at the ways we can celebrate these languages, cultures, and the diversity that makes Canada such a fantastic place to live.

  8. I don’t think it is necessary to be bilingual to take the leadership of a party – as long as there’s a willingness to learn. It does put the party at a bit of a disadvantage during an election, but if that person is clearly making the effort and respecting Quebec, then there will be a grudging acceptance (maybe not to the point of voting for him/her, but …).

    Simply saying “I’m unilingual and staying that way” won’t cut it though. Not only would the party lose a lot of support in the part of the country speaking the other language, if that person were English speaking you’d likely find the embers of separatism rapidly heating up.

  9. With this article you qualify for ‘failing pile of garbage’ of the week. Of course the PM should master our two official languages. So should his ministers, juges, ambassadors, top civil servants and anyone who matters or think they should matter at the federal level.

  10. Kevin O’Leary is using the bilingual issue to distract us from the fact that he is “just visiting”.

    His is not “Trump”. He is “Ignatieff V2.0”

  11. I am quite pleased that the notion of a bilingual prime minister has become the norm. Even an Alberta born Joe Clark was able to learn passable French. It seems to me that those who dismiss French language proficiency as being optional are largely hypocritical in that I doubt many of them would lend their support to a very competent unilingual francophone candidate for the job. I was saddened to see the jab at Jean Chrétien, who was fluent in both languages, but had a pronounced accent. I think much of the criticism about his linguistic skills stems from his palsy and not his actual language skills.

    People who aspire to this country’s highest political position should have more than a passing knowledge of its official languages. Not everyone needs to be bilingual, but for those who dream living at 24 Sussex Drive, biligualism is one of the many skill sets they need to acquire. They should be proficient in both and have an understanding of the cultures they aspire to represent. What level of commitment would a Canadian PM have if he or she represented us at the Commonwealth of Nations and could not speak English or at a summit of la Francophonie if he or she could not speak French? Even our queen, who lives in another country can speak both our official languages. Why should we expect less of our prime minister? Bilinguals are by nature bridge builders; they can view the world through different eyes. This is essential in a country such as ours. Our elected representative at home and abroad should at least speak our official languages. A unilingual PM? Non merci.

    • Conservatives love to make fun of people’s handicap – here and in the US where Mr. O’Leary resides. The Queen has read and understands her constitutional position. Mr. O’Leary thinks being prime minister is about being on TV in a different role. Clueless.

  12. Le Devoir posts that a video presentation is out – not a word of French, not even a bonjour. It really shows that he’s just visiting. What next? Infected blankets for the Indians?

  13. Has Macleans turned into an organ of Trumpist nativism? Seriously.

    The Prime Minister of Canada should be able to communicate to the citizens he or she governs in both official languages. What an embarrassment when a unilingual English Prime Minister can’t answer questions posed to them in French – either by the press or in the House of Commons; address public meetings and rallies in the language of those attending them; or speak for Canada at international gatherings like La Francophonie. Of course it’s no big deal to Anglophones. It’s utterly disenfranchising to Francophones in Quebec, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Ontario, and elsewhere.

  14. No question, the chief representative of Canada should be able to communicate in both French and English – fluently in one and functionally in the other, at least. For any government to suggest otherwise would be ‘experiment’-ing with political suicide – and so it should be.

  15. A winning smile is a qualification, in your book, to be Prime Minister? What contribution does a smile make to leadership? We should be looking for people with the ability to govern with wisdom and from a position of knowledge, not a pretty smile.
    You state that only 17 % of the population can carry on a conversation in both English and French so the PM doesn’t need to be bilingual. That might be relevant if the goal was to be able to use both languages in a conversation and be understood by the listener all the time. The purpose of having a bilingual PM is so that he can speak in their language to the 83% who can only speak one language or the other.

    With only 17 per cent of Canadians able to carry on a coherent conversation in English and French, mandatory bilingualism instantly disqualifies more than 80 per cent of the population from political leadership.

    • Interesting point!
      Like I’ve always said…’if your brain surgeon was the most qualified but not bilingual (English or French) would you insist on him being bilingual’?
      I wouldn’t…I would only want the best. whether it be a doctor, lawyer, athlete, police chief or soldier.
      Look at what we have now in Jr. Certainly not the best by any accounts.

  16. Trudeau is bilingual but obviously that doesn’t mean that he has any leadership skills!! I don’t think Gerald Butt who is actually running the country now and helped Wynne ruin Ontario can speak French.

  17. “Canada’s prime minister shouldn’t need to be bilingual” – maybe, maybe not. It’s up to voters to decide. This appears to be yet another journalist’s attempt to tell the rest of us what to do.

  18. I am curious as to the degree of support a unilingual anglophone leader would get from Québécois. Regardless, this is the kind of view or attitude that fosters the separatist sentiment in Québec. Being a francophone Québécois myself, I would not cast my vote for a political party whose leader is not bilingual under the current circumstances.

    It is truly a shame that bilingualism is considered by some as irrelevant, even more so by people like Mr. O’Leary who is a Québécois himself. If not motivated by the desire to understand the other people living within the same country, could bilingualism not be motivated by intellectual curiosity? I think that this goes both ways.

    Ultimately, the Conservative Party is responsible for its decisions, but I am disappointed that MacLean’s would decide to publish an article that undermines the importance of bilingualism in Canada.

    • I am a bilingual (Francophone) Manitoban and choose to listen to French language TV & radio and would be looking for a debate in French. It is not just a matter of whether or not I am bilingual and thus capable of understanding a unilingual PM, it is that I choose to use my first language and expect to be understood in my language of choice (refer to The Official Languages Act, and The Charter for more on this).
      There are many very capable potential leaders from all parties. Any aspiring future leaders should enrol in English or French Immersion asap.

  19. 58% english, 22% french and the rest (about 20%) comprised mostly of various native languages.

    So if french represents one fifth to one quarter of the total population, and is also equivalent to more than one third of the english speaking population.. you tell me why the hell he shouldn’t, you condescending jerk.

    In regards to those stats, if a basic employee working in clientele service in Montreal (second biggest city in Canada, I’ll remind you) has to be bilingual, then the PM of Canada certainly has to be as well.

    • So, who would you rather vote for- A unilingual anglophone who would seek to dismantle the oppressive and confiscatory socialist governments we now endure, or a bilingual one that will seek to expand the levels of confiscation, intrusion, and regulation that are the hallmarks and root of many of our most enduring economic and social ills? Does language trump economics, or do economics and liberty trump language? If it were as black and white as that, which would you choose?

  20. The only problem is Mr. Taylor, a unilingual candidate would not become Prime minister…after all there is 7 million of us Frenchies!!
    Articles of this nature, only aggravates the intolerance between french and english in Canada…
    One last thing for you Mr. Taylor…Get out and travel, open up you horizon…I just came back from a month trip to Europe, which was spent with people from Calgary, Vancouver and London, Ontario and Frenchie here, enjoyed every moment of it!

  21. Yes there is a minority of people who are uni-lingual francophone in the country, but there is still 1/5 of the entire Canadian population that know how to speak french. Do we really want to vote for someone who won’t take a couple of months of his life to be able to better associate to 20% of the population? I don’t think a proper politician that actually cares for all the members of his country would, regardless of laws. Yes some heavy accents have occurred in the past, Harper and Chretien are no exceptions, but should we really look to the past and point fingers at former politicians and say; well he did it, so it’s ok…

  22. Political realities – such as the fact that Quebec ridings make up a significant proportion of the seats in the House of Commons – means that in practice, whatever one may think of the principle, of course a candidate for Prime Minister will have to be able to speak French. And it’s hard to fault Quebec Francophones for this, as I think a French Canadian candidate for Prime Minister who couldn’t speak a word of English would face an uphill battle seeking votes in English Canada.

  23. The purpose, and it has been effective, is to disenfranchise large portions of this country from being involved in the federal government. That has to change.

  24. The only thing we could say to that English separatist is “Welcome to Canada. It is not USA with a queen here.”

    With such a right wing English separatist comment, Quebec should
    repatriate the word, Canada, while the rest would be USK, United States Kingdom.

    Despite that … Vive le Canada !

  25. The right wing English separatist message from Peter Shawn Taylor is “Guys … you are bilingual … or … you are good !”

  26. I just got automatically subscribed to Maclean’s because other Rogers subscriptions went digital. I have to say I am far from impressed by this article which is the very first one I read in this magazine since a long time. I had heard about similar divisive articles in the past but thought they were gone. Apparently not. Too bad, I think we need more uniting messages than dividing ones.

    Canada is a bilingual country and needs to be represented as such by a bilingual PM. I do like Mr. O’Leary’s interventions on business and financial markets but if he can’t learn French then to me and many Canadians he is automatically disqualified.

  27. Are there any statistics available on the number of bilingual Francophones vs bilingual Anglophones in Canada?

    Thank you.

  28. Your article mentions that only 17% of Canadians can hold a basic conversation in both languages. Its a statistic that none of us should be proud of as Canadians. Our Country was formed on very different principles, those of understanding, mutual respect and cooperation between the 2 founding solitudes.

  29. I agree… He could only speak french…