There is a provocative opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, by journalist, author and publisher Kenneth Whyte, who is, also, Chair of the Board of the (fairly conservative) Donner Canadian Foundation, which did not, I think, get sufficient attention. In it, he says that it’s time the Conservative Party reconsidered its unstated but very clear leadership prerequisite which says that the party’s leader must be bilingual, “along with its approach to winning seats in Quebec … [because] … It hasn’t worked.“
I think that’s undeniable when one considers that, as Ken Whyte says, “Quebec isn’t attracted to bilingual leaders from outside Quebec … [as shown by the fact that] … In every election since the retirement of Mr. Pearson, Quebec has given the vast majority of its seats to a Quebecker. What Quebec wants is what the Americans call a favourite son (presumably a favourite daughter would do, as well): one of their own, a Brian Mulroney, a Gilles Duceppe, a Jack Layton … [but, he adds, even] … Having a favourite son as leader is no guarantee of success in Quebec, as Tom Mulcair and Gilles Duceppe learned on getting clocked by another favourite son, Justin Trudeau, in 2015. But running a bilingual non-Quebecker in the province is a sure route to failure for any party. It doesn’t even work for Liberals, as John Turner, Paul Martin and Michael Ignatieff have learned. Each was soundly beaten by a favourite son.“
If you accept Mr Whyte’s view, and I do not dispute it, then why should the CPC even care about having a bilingual leader? Since the most prominent Québec “native son” has bowed out, why not just pick the best Conservative ~ the one who can keep the loyalty of the (largely) Western and small-town “base” AND capture enough seats in the suburbs, especially around the Greater Toronto Area, to secure majority-after-majority-after-majority, and then back her or him up, as was done in the past, with a really popular Québec lieutenant?
Well, in my opinion, some language skill matters. “Some” is not the same as the levels of fluency displayed by Bian Mulroney, Jack Layton and Justin Trudeau or, even, by Stephen Harper. In my opinion, “some” language skill is about what Jean Chrétien managed in English. He usually understood most questions and, while he generally mangled the grammar and syntax, his English was comprehensible … usually, and sometimes only barely. I do not believe that it is unreasonable to expect any Canadian who wants to lead the whole country to be able to communicate with her or his fellow citizens at least, as well as Prime Minister Chrétien, does. He’s not fluent in English, not by a long shot, but he gets by. That’s what I think the standard should be. Marilyn Gladu, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole …
… all appear, to me, to meet that standard, as do several other prominent Conservatives. But, we may be 100% sure that the French language media will demand a much higher standard. I expect that anyone who is less fluent than Stephe Harper will be accused of insulting or humiliating French Canada. But if Mr Whyte is right and only a native son can win more than, say, 10 seats in Québec then why do Conservatives care so much? Have they bought a phoney ‘bill of goods‘ by the Laurentian Elites?
“Liberals,” Kenneth Whyte says, “will argue that a prime minister of Canada needs to speak to Canadian francophones in their native tongue. It’s smart of Liberals to press that view. It makes the Conservatives (if they listen) less effective, and it makes a virtue of the fact that Liberals, hugely dependent on Quebec, have more limited leadership options than Conservatives. For 50 years, Liberals have been unable to hold government without a Quebec leader.“
On the other hand, he says, “Mr. Harper demonstrated that Conservatives can win comfortable majorities without strength in Quebec and this gets easier over time. Since the 1960s, Quebec’s share of Canada’s population has declined to 23 per cent from 29 per cent; its share of parliamentary seats has declined correspondingly. French-speaking Quebecois have shrunk to 18 per cent from 24 per cent of Canada’s population. Statistics Canada sees these trends continuing, if not accelerating, long into the future … [see my comments, here, and] … Not only will Quebec be a smaller piece of Canada; it will be less like the Quebec of the past 50 years, with more ethnocultural diversity and a relatively smaller economy … [meanwhile] …. the west has been growing, its share of parliamentary seats has been increasing, and these trends are likely to continue.” All of which says that the road to a majority government, for now, and the foreseeable future runs through the suburbs around, especially Greater Toronto. If the Conservatives want to govern Canada then they must win there. A Conservative leader who cannot win there will be the leader of the opposition.
But here’s the catch: the suburban Ontario voters are concerned about national unity and they, broadly and generally, buy into the Laurentian Consensus‘ view that Canadian prime ministers must be bilingual … the only question, therefore, is: “How bilingual?” I gave my answer above … but, is that enough?