HALIFAX — Conservative MPs say it’s imperative their new leader speak French, but how bilingual that person must be or by what time fluency is required remains a source of disagreement among caucus members.
Calgary MP Michelle Rempel told reporters Tuesday it is important that the leader be fluently bilingual and be able to understand the nuances of the language at a colloquial level. “I think that somebody stepping into the race right now has to be functionally fluent,” she said.
Quebec MP Gérard Deltell, a well-regarded and influential figure regionally, said speaking French is an absolute requirement, but it’s also very subjective. “Being able to do a debate with [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau will happen in three years, so a person has to be able to debate in three years,” he said.
“Now, French can’t be learned in three years, so a person still needs to have a base. Today, what we are asking for is for a candidate to be able to express themselves in French in a press conference, answer a few questions in French.”
Kellie Leitch arrives at the national Conservative summer caucus retreat in Halifax, Sept. 13, 2016. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch spent six week this summer in Quebec trying to learn French.
“I know she’s getting a lot better,” Deltell said. “She’s making a big effort.”
Leitch acknowledged that learning the language isn’t coming easily. “I hope my French will improve day after day, week after week, month after month,” she said, struggling to speak Molière’s language.
She isn’t, however, the only candidate who needs a lot of help in that department.
"My grammar may not be good, but I’m not writing a book."
— Tory MP Deepak Obhrai
Calgary MP and leadership hopeful Deepak Obhrai said: “Je parle le français un peu.” Translation: I speak French a bit.
But is it good enough to debate? Obhrai abandoned all pretence that he could continue the interview in French, saying in English that he plans to continue learning.
“My grammar may not be good, but I’m not writing a book,” he said.
Many would-be candidates — Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost, Ontario MP Erin O’Toole and Ontario MP Lisa Raitt — are also brushing up on their skills.
Trost said, in French, that he speaks “a little bit. But it’s dangerous for me to spend a lot of time speaking the French language,” he said, in a surprisingly comfortable accent. “I hope my level of French will increase over the near year.”
It’s Raitt, however, a higher profile candidate who is believed to have wide appeal, who is raising a lot of eyebrows within caucus because of her lacklustre French skills.
Quebec MP Pierre Paul-Hus laughed when asked about her language abilities. “I don’t think her French is very strong.”
"If someone is considering leadership and is working on their French, there is literally years to work on it."
— MP Dean Allison
But Ontario MP Dean Allison, who likes Raitt, thinks she has a lot of time to work on her French.
“Because I don’t speak very good French, anyone who speaks any French, to me, is good. So I’m probably not the judge,” he told HuffPost. “If someone is considering leadership and is working on their French, there is literally years to work on it.”
Raitt acknowledged Tuesday that her French has to get better for her to be the person who runs to be prime minister.
Lisa Raitt arrives at the national Conservative summer caucus retreat in Halifax, Sept. 13, 2016. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
“I’m going to continue to work on that,” she said. “My goal is to be completely fluent … [but] I can’t snap my fingers and make myself bilingual tomorrow.”
But Alberta MP Chris Warkentin, who supports likely candidate Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer, said he believes it’s not good enough to pledge to learn French, that a leadership candidate has to be bilingual “right out of the gate.”
Being an MP is a demanding job; a cabinet minister has even longer hours; and a party leader has even more work, he said. After 10 years in Ottawa and despite language training, Warkentin said, he still can’t speak French.
“Maybe I’m a slow learner, but with the rigours of the job, there is no guarantee that there would be time available for in-depth and full immersion in French,” he said. “What is necessary is to be fluently bilingual.”
Other unilingual MPs, such as Alberta’s Blaine Calkins and Manitoba’s James Bezan, agreed.
"It is important that the leader of any political party can speak to each and every Canadian in their official language."
— MP James Bezan
“The next leader needs to have all the qualities necessary to be the prime minister of Canada and we are an officially bilingual country so,” Calkins said.
“It is important that the leader of any political party can speak to each and every Canadian in their official language,” Bezan said.
“I want to make sure that the leader that we have at the end, if they are put through a national televised debate, that they can articulate the policies of the Conservative party very clearly to every Canadian in both official languages.”
Ontario MPs and leadership candidates Tony Clement and Michael Chong both seemed to fit that bill. Chong’s French has greatly improved since he announced his leadership bid in the spring. Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, who is also contemplating a run, is seen by many in caucus as sufficiently bilingual.
Maxime Bernier listens as interim leader Rona Ambrose speaks at the national Conservative summer caucus retreat in Halifax, Sept. 13, 2016. (Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
The only native French speaker in the contest so far, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, said Conservative members would soon realize who can speak French and who cannot.
The party is planning five leadership debates. One in English, one in French and three that will be bilingual – although the format hasn’t been decided.
“Some [candidates] are learning French. Will they learn it fast enough to debate in French? I don’t know,” he said. What pleases him, he added, is that all candidates agree on the need to speak French and communicate with Quebecers. “I think that’s very positive.”
Like every other Quebec MP, Denis Lebel, the party’s deputy leader, told HuffPost the next leader absolutely has to be bilingual. The party’s militants will choose what the proper level of bilingualism is, he said, but “the person will be bilingual.”