National Column: Weak French alienates crucial Quebec support

by Chantal Hebert

If the federal Conservatives are looking for a leader liable to hold his or her own against Justin Trudeau in a French-language election debate in 2019, then more than half of the current contenders for Stephen Harper’s succession are wasting their time.

Based on Tuesday night’s bilingual debate, only half a dozen make the cut.

To no one’s surprise, the group includes the two Quebec candidates.

Maxime Bernier’s fluency in English is equal or superior to the French-language skills of his rivals. Measured against the low average of the language skills of the competition, Steven Blaney’s English also makes the grade. Former ministers Chris Alexander and Michael Chong, former House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer and Vancouver businessman Rick Peterson round out the list.

A francophone politician who ran for a national leadership position with as little proficiency in the other official language as some of the former senior ministers who are vying for Harper’s job would be laughed off the stage.

Neither Lisa Raitt nor Erin O’Toole – the favourite candidates of some Parliament Hill insiders – could survive an interview on Radio-Canada’s prime-time talk show Tout le monde en parle, let alone advance the Conservative cause on a French-language debate podium.

Kellie Leitch is said to have spent weeks in French immersion last summer. The result only goes to show that acquiring second-language skills is easier said than done.

Backers of the non-bilingual candidates argue that with more than two years between the election of a leader next May and the 2019 federal campaign, there should be enough time for whoever is selected to improve his or her French.

The fact is that Canada’s current auditor general, Michael Ferguson, who was not bilingual at the time of his appointment, is quite comfortable giving interviews in French five years later. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin similarly became proficient in French after she was elevated to the Supreme Court.

But neither had to win a leadership campaign to arrive at their positions.

Under the Conservative formula, every riding weighs equally in the result. Absent a prohibitive front-runner, a candidate will likely have to be the second choice of a good many of his or her rivals’ supporters to prevail. It will be virtually impossible to win without significant support in Quebec.

Given a choice, it is a rare Quebec Conservative who would want a leader who is not fluent in French.

That is not just true of Quebecers.

For many Canadians, it is a given that those who aspire to be prime minister should be bilingual.

Even if they wanted to, the Quebec MPs who are currently unaligned would have a hard time selling a non-bilingual contender to their riding associations.

Just ask Belinda Stronach. In 2004, Quebec’s Tory establishment was desperate for someone to block Harper’s path to the leadership. For lack of a stronger alternative, many of its members threw their support behind the non-bilingual Stronach.

But those high-profile endorsements failed to translate into grassroots support.

There are those who believe the Conservatives need not fret about Quebec’s language preferences.

After all, did not Harper secure a majority in 2011 with only a handful of seats from that province? Yes, but that was before the Liberals got their act back together.

A year in, Trudeau’s popularity in his home province stands 15 points over his party’s election score. In no other region of the country has Liberal support increased as much since the party’s arrival in power.

Not all the credit for that goes to Trudeau. The NDP decision to oust Thomas Mulcair is part of the mix.

It will be hard for the New Democrats to find a replacement with as much gravitas in Quebec. So far, none has materialized.

That means the next Conservative Party of Canada leader may not be able to count on the division of the non-conservative vote to win seats in Quebec in 2019. Without a four-way split in the 2015 vote, Harper would not have come out of his last campaign with more Quebec MPs.

The Conservative share of the popular vote did not increase.

With the Bloc QuÈbÈcois a spent force and the NDP about to trade down to a less Quebec-savvy leader, a language-challenged Conservative rival may be all that Trudeau needs to succeed in restoring the Quebec Liberal fortress his father built.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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