OTTAWA–Does the next Conservative leader need to be fluent in both of Canada’s official languages?
It’s the question that has defined the early days of the race to replace Andrew Scheer, with the front-runners’ fluency in French — or lack thereof — making headlines in Quebec and beyond.
Peter MacKay was ridiculed in Quebec newspapers Sunday for some linguistic stumbling at his official campaign launch. His main competition, Erin O’Toole, displayed what one professor described as “token French” — rehearsed but hardly comfortable — in a video announcing his candidacy Monday.
“They’re not really conversant in French. They’re not fluent, that’s for sure,” said Maxime Prévost, director of the University of Ottawa’s Department of French, after reviewing both candidates’ campaign launches.
After Pierre Poilievre and Jean Charest bowed out of the race, the Conservative leadership contest is looking decidedly Anglo. Richard Décarie, a social conservative, is the only declared candidate so far who is bilingual.
Not everybody is convinced that the inability to speak French is a deal-breaker. Indeed, author and publisher Ken Whyte argues the Conservative party should give up trying to win seats in Quebec — pointing out that it has had little success in that province, anyway — and focus on Atlantic Canada, Ontario and its base in the west.
However, Graham Fraser, the former official languages commissioner, argues that there are issues at stake beyond winning the next election.
“The revival of the Bloc (Quebecois) has been one of the factors that kept the current government from winning a majority,” Fraser said in an interview. “And one of the constant themes of the Bloc since its creation is that the federalist parties, the so-called national parties, cannot truly represent Quebec’s interests.
“To have a unilingual party leader simply reinforces that message.”
For those looking to lead the Conservative Party, there’s an even more pressing reason to pay attention to Quebec. Under the Conservatives’ rules, each of Canada’s 338 ridings has equal weight in selecting the party’s next leader. As CBC polling analyst Eric Grenier pointed out, that means a Montreal-area riding with 20 Conservative members has just as much influence as a Calgary riding with 2,000 members. With Quebec’s many ridings and relatively few party members, each leadership vote cast in the province is worth considerably more than one cast in, say, Alberta — where O’Toole launched his campaign Monday.
So while Quebec votes may not be decisive for the Conservatives in a general election, they are very valuable for Conservative leadership candidates — and will almost certainly be hard to win for candidates who don’t speak French.
The Conservatives will select their next leader on June 27 at a convention in Toronto. Candidates will have to raise $300,000 and obtain 3,000 signatures of support from across the country to have their names on the ballot.
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