Franchement: PM Stephen Harper and French Canadians -

Franchement: PM Stephen Harper and French Canadians

What’s striking about the claim that Harper has done more than any PM for French is only partly that it’s so easy to disprove


Four of Jean Chrétien’s six Supreme Court appointees were francophones, including some from outside Quebec; the two anglophones, Fish and Binnie, were Montreal-born McGill graduates who had no trouble in French. At one point Chrétien’s Chief Justice (Antonio Lamer), Clerk of the Privy Council (Jocelyne Bourgon), Chief of Staff (Jean Pelletier), and some large number of his cabinet ministers were francophones. Chrétien’s favourite cabinet minister, Stéphane Dion, introduced an Action Plan for Official Languages in 2003; Paul Martin extended it in 2005.

I belabour all this because Stephen Harper responded to some criticism in a year-end interview with TVA by saying: “As prime minister, I think I’ve given more space to French than any prime minister in the history of the country.” (He began the sentence with a franchement, frankly, that gave me this post’s headline.)

The claim is counterintuitive. Harper appointed a unilingual auditor general who still cannot answer questions in French about how well he is learning French; a short-lived bilingual communications director, Angelo Persichilli, whose first and second languages did not include French; and two unilingual Supreme Court justices, Rothstein and Moldaver. Manon Cornellier, at the bottom of this blog post, takes further issue with Harper’s claim to be a particularly francophone-friendly prime minister.

I don’t want to paint the PM as a blue meanie who hates French, because that would be ludicrous. His personal effort to learn French has been absolutely extraordinary; I don’t know about Charles Tupper or John Abbott, but except for the utterly bicultural Brian Mulroney, he’s now the most fluently bilingual anglophone PM of my lifetime. Conservative cabinet and caucus members have taken the hint; the brightest and most ambitious among them take care to learn French well. James Moore does a fine job as official languages minister. The Official Languages Commissioner, Graham Fraser, meets the PM every year to discuss his annual reports. It’s a formality, but a perfectly decent gesture. Fraser’s predecessors had no such regular meetings with Martin and Chrétien.

What’s striking about the claim that Harper has done more than any PM for French is only partly that it’s so easy to disprove. Here’s columnist Douglas Fisher describing Trudeau’s Ottawa in 1983:

Of the 36 members of the cabinet, 15 are French-language-in-the-home types; of 27 parliamentary secretaries, 13 are French; of the 21 chairmanships of House committees, nine are held by French; of the 145-odd Liberal MPs, some 95 are French-language types…

What’s more surprising is that Harper would bother to claim he’s out-Frenched his Liberal predecessors. The paragraph I just quoted comes from Peter Brimelow’s book The Patriot Game, National Dreams & Political Realities, one of the most influential texts in the modern history of (predominantly Western Canadian) conservatism. The whole point of that book was that under Trudeau, English Canada had bent itself into pretzels in a doomed attempt to accommodate French Quebec. Harper’s biographer William Johnson describes Harper making bulk purchases of the book after its 1986 publication to distribute to friends.

It will not come as news that Harper has substantially moderated his political actions since he became serious about forming a government. At their best, his attempts to make room for French in his government go well beyond what most people would have expected of a government led by a conservative Albertan, maybe especially this one. His journey from Brimelowism to something close to the Trudeau-Clark-Mulroney-Chrétien heritage of official bilingualism and a largely bicultural official Ottawa is a fascinating one. That he rationalizes that journey by exaggerating its extent is what card players would call a “tell.”




Franchement: PM Stephen Harper and French Canadians

  1. Franchement you should check with more “French Canadians”. Is he surging in the polls? #frcan

  2. Maybe he meant to say ‘as prime minister, I think I’ve given more space to French than any Conservative prime minister in the history of the country’?

    • It is not as if this is the first time he’s made that kind of ridiculous assertion is it!

  3. Just out of interest is there any indication yet of how that ridiculous claim went down in the QC media?

    “In a year-end interview with the French language television station TVA,
    the prime minister said he favours “institutional” bilingualism over
    “individual” bilingualism and believes only certain jobs should require
    proficiency in both official languages.”

    Just what “problem” does Harper feel needs fixing? I’m thinking of Trudeau’s response to criticism of OB…that it isn’t an imposition on the individual, it’s an imposition on the state.

    • Exactly. In naming unilingual officers of parliament and justices of the SCOC Harper imposes bilingualism on the individual citizens rather than the state.

  4. Well, if you define “doing things’ for Quebec or the French in general as the number of cabinet ministers that are French, or SC judges, okay. What about actually DOING THINGS like the “Quebec is a nation” and money for the crumbling bridge and all those things? Does that not count? FWIW, I didn’t think that having Anne McLellan in cabinet meant anything was being “done” for AB, for example. Still felt like a “flyover province for a decade or so. “Funding for things? That is “doing something.” IMHO anyway.

    • I figured I’d define it the way the Prime Minister did: as “giving space to French.” Nutty little idea I had.

    • How is a bridge French ?

    • Ok OK its the Champlain bridge right ? An obviously French bridge if ever there was one, if on the other hand it were the Victoria bridge, well thats an English bridge isn’t it ?

  5. I don’t play poker so i’m going right out on a limb here…does that last sentence convey overcompensation as defensiveness on the part of the PM? Aren’t you overlooking good old fashioned pandering? Or Mulroneyesque delusions of grandeur.

  6. I don’t get the point of the whole article. Is he good or bad with francophones?

    • Maybe mixed?

      • Kind of similar to Eugene Whelan wearing a cowboy hat. In Liberal eyes it made him one with rural Canadians. What a crock.

        • Eugene’s hat was green, which makes him a precursor for Elizabeth May

  7. PMSH has become a legend in his own mind.


    • Nix that… eagles ‘n babies.

  9. Can i take a crack at that last line again, it’s fascinating me for some reason?[ why can’t you stick to hockey metaphors?]
    I can accept that Harper as you say has come a way from his Brimelowism [credit where credit is due] toward the ideal of official bilingualism, at least at institutional levels in Ottawa[ did he just throw the little god that failed under a #9 bus in the process?] And i can accept that he feels some pride in that…pride in achievement or possibly a personal price paid for compromised or traded off principles …is that a tell? That he sees it as more of an achievement than it really is, given how much he thinks he’s sacrificed. Am i any warmer? Yet it could stlll be viewed as a form of defensiveness. I guess it’s growth of a sort. If you consider just how far Harper had to come from there to here? But i can’t get over feeling you’re prepared to give more credit than is due him when one considers just how low the bar as been for Harper all along.

  10. It’s more of what Steve has found to be a winning strategy — just make the claim — most media types won’t bother with a fact check, they’ll just repeat it so it’ll become the new “truth”.

    • Al la Romney and Ryan.

  11. The French weighting of Trudeau’s cabinet bears no relation to the actual composition of Canada’s population. In a cabinet of 36 members there should be around 7 or 8 ministers who are French-language-in-the-home types if their numbers are to reflect accurately their proportion of the population at large.

  12. What a childish article! Just for your information, Paul Wells, Harper indeed have “given more space to French than any prime minister in the history of the country”:
    – gave Quebec a “Nation” designation
    – DOUBLED funding for 2008-2013 Road Map (action plan for official languages)
    – DOUBLED funding to OCOL (office of the commissioner of official languages)
    – created a new crown corporation “Eastern Ontario Opportunities Agency” to distribute dough to Franco-Ontariens
    – amended Immigration Act to force French immigration to English Canada (WTF?)

    Don’t you think Harper should have done at least something for another linguistic group, main linguistic group I might add, English? Appointing a unilingual auditor-general… that’s all, Mr. Harper? When we voted CPC in in 2006, we expected you do away with OLA or at least remove its unfair zealous application.

  13. Holy Cow! Paul Wells actually being critical of Stephen Harper. “Take his temperature, call the doctor…”