National Column: French still key for Tory hopefuls

by Chantal Hebert

First, some somewhat encouraging news for the 11 non-Quebec candidates who are gathering in the province’s capital for the only French-language debate of the federal Conservative leadership campaign. The Quebec Conservatives who hold the second-largest number of leadership votes are not – in principle at least – wedded to the concept of having a native son as party leader.

For the main part, they are voters who stuck with Stephen Harper over successive elections despite the overtures of Quebec-based leaders as diverse as Paul Martin, Jack Layton, Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau and, of course, Gilles Duceppe.

If place-of-political-origin had been a primary consideration, surely one of Harper’s rivals would have fit the bill.

In fact, over the past decade, Harper and Jack Layton put to rest the notion that political success in the province is out of the reach of a federal leader who is not also a Quebec insider. The more sobering news for the majority of candidates whose fluency in French is non-existent or, at best, a work in progress is that proficiency in that language is as essential to connect with their party’s Quebec members as mastering English would be in the other regions of the country.

According to the latest available census numbers, about 60 per cent of francophone Quebecers are not bilingual. If anything, the proportion of Conservative members who do not master English or understand it easily is higher than the provincial average.

In contrast with the New Democrats and the Liberals, the seats the Conservatives hold are all deep in francophone territory including Quebec City, the venue chosen for Tuesday’s French-language debate.

There was a time, in the pre-Harper era, where Reform and Canadian Alliance strategists believed the path to success in Quebec ran through the more anglophone areas of the province. That was until they found out the
hard way that Quebec’s English-language minority and its allophone counterparts tend to be rock-solid Liberal constituencies.

It was not for lack of trying that Harper never managed to gain a foothold in Montreal or in the diverse suburbs that surround Quebec’s metropolis. Some Montreal-area voters did flirt with the NDP at the time of the 2011 orange wave, but they consistently gave the ruling Conservatives the cold shoulder.

The NDP and the Reform party were the last federal parties to run under leaders whose French-language skills were below the standards of an election debate. The Quebec results speak for themselves: a measly 1.5 per cent for Audrey McLaughlin’s NDP in 1993 and – in case you think that’s bad – less than half of that for Preston Manning’s Reform Party four years later.

Would-be leadership contender Kevin O’Leary has argued that Quebecers are more sensitive to what he calls “the language of jobs” than to their own language. Good luck with testing that assertion. It is uncomfortably reminiscent of the bygone era when French was considered a second-class language in the province’s corporate circles.

In the real world, language-savvy Quebec millennials treat as a given the notion that those who seek national leadership roles should similarly master both French and English. For most Quebecers, Canada’s linguistic duality is more than a rhetorical concept to which federal politicians only need pay lip service once in a while.

An overwhelming Quebec majority believes the city of Ottawa as the federal capital should be officially bilingual and expects Supreme Court justices to be able to hear arguments in either official language without the help of an interpreter. The same goes for leaders of serious federal parties.

With the leadership campaign about to move into high gear, Quebec is by all indications Beauce MP Maxime Bernier’s to lose – in no small part, because his non-Quebec opponents, including those who are bilingual, have little or no profile in the province.

If the likes of former ministers such as James Moore or Jason Kenney – who were both efficient in French and on the Quebec radar – were running, the dynamics of the campaign to find a successor to Harper would be different.

Given the language limitations of most of the leadership candidates, the safest debate game plan for Bernier’s out-of-province rivals might be to play nice in the hope of emerging as the second choice of his supporters. One way or another, based on the year-end “bilingual” debate, the French language is set to take more hits than the presumed Quebec front-runner on Tuesday night.

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

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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