In all Canadian political leadership campaigns, there are metrics and expectations that voters us to judge and assess the various candidates. There are certain things that are expected, some things that are nice to have and frankly, some other qualities that are to be avoided. And in every such campaign, all candidates are judged by those standards, for better or worse. Some of those candidates look better by those standards than others, leaving some to complain about that fact.
Here in Canada we do have a relatively unique standard for those who hope to be Prime Minister that other countries would never consider to be a basic required skill; being sufficiently conversant in both of Canada’s official languages. Over the decades the debate and discussion around the need or desirability for our national leaders to be able to communicate in both French and English has taken place but really for the past thirty or so years this has been a settled matter. It’s expected, full stop, and not just be politicos and talking heads in Ottawa. A poll from 2016 found that 86% of Canadians think the Prime Minister should be bilingual, which is a staggering number when you think of how few things that many Canadians actually agree on.
Yet here we are, in 2020, and we’re hearing the old comments and tropes being dragged out against this basic expectation; it discriminates against people from the West, people just can’t learn French that easily, only people from within spitting distance of Ottawa can then quality, so few people are actually bilingual, etc. And you know what, there are few topics out there that get under my skin as much as this one and those tired, tired tropes. They bother me so much because I know just how wrong they are by the simple fact that I am who I am, that I have done what I have done and that I continue to do so.
In the grade scheme of things, I’m no one special; I’m a Métis kid who grew up in the sticks of Northwestern Ontario, within spitting distance of the Manitoba border. No one in my family spoke any French, as did very few people who lived around us. Yet when I was seven my parents made the choice to put myself in the brand-new French Immersion program that was being offered. For me at the time, I wasn’t happy about it; that meant a new school for me, an hour and forty-five minutes bus ride each way, every day and having to make new friends. And I freely admit, that first year was rough, learning a new language basically from scratch. But I stuck with it, my parents insisted it would be worth it and would open doors for me. I hated to hear that at the time, but as time went along I saw more and more how right they were.
I finished high school with my bilingual diploma, even having done some courses through a French high school through Contact North. I got into university, something I was told by many would never happen, got my degree in French and then went into teaching. I taught French, both Immersion and Core, for five years before going into the Civil Service then into politics. That lead me to writing policy, legislation and even spending half of my near decade working for an MP from Quebec, working in French daily. Heck I still remember when that MP hired me, because we would joke about my different accent; it became an ice breaker when I would travel to Abitibi over the next few years.
And over the years, having achieved all of that, done all that, I’ve started to hear more and more stories from family about those very early years, back in the mid-80’s, when I started all this in French Immersion. A lot was said at the time that being a young kid, I never heard. I heard stories about family and friends of my parents actually giving them Hell for putting me in Immersion. They said it was “giving in to the Frenchies”, and it was a wrong thing to do. They said I’d never need French and that it would hurt my ability to speak English. Yet regardless of all that pressure, they did it. And I have benefitted from it, and outside of bringing me into this world, it’s probably the thing I thank my parents for the most today.
So why bring all that up? What’s the point here? Good question, let me answer that for you. For starters, becoming functionally bilingual is not some impossible thing that is out of reach for most people. It’s not some high standard that only an elite few can reach, like getting a PH. D or becoming an astronaut. If anything, becoming bilingual is more like a skill, like getting your driver’s license; yes, it takes work and you may not need to drive to do most things, but without it, you can’t get hired to do a lot of work because you need it as a tool to help you do your actual work. The point is that becoming bilingual is far from being this reasonably unachievable thing that so many want to show it to be.
Do we have a problem with enough people getting there though? Absolutely, I agree with that, but that’s not because of a lack of ability to do it. It’s because of failures in the systems we’ve put in place to get us there, the lack of resources and frankly the will and desire to make it happen. Core French programs are an abject failure, mostly because they are poorly designed and completely unvalued. I saw that firsthand when I taught Core French, I even had a principal tell me I was nothing more than prep coverage for other teachers and Core French was a glorified babysitting time. You can just imagine what some parents have to say about that program when that’s what your principal is saying. And that is all despite the academic research on learning languages that shows us just how wrong we are doing it. Not only do kids in Core French not get enough time every day, most don’t start until 4th grade when all the studies show us that the younger you are, the easier it is to gain language skills. I could go on but are there problems there to be solved? Absolutely, but the problem isn’t bilingualism itself.
But when it comes to our political leaders, and particularly those who are seeking the Conservative leadership now, asking that our leaders learn both official languages is not a bridge too far. It’s not elitist, it’s not something that disqualifies everyday people. Learning a new language is something that anyone can do, and frankly MPs have more resources at their disposal everyday to help them do just that. Did you know that all MPs have access to free French lessons through the House of Commons? No conditions, no charge, free classes and lessons, including with their own tutors. One on one learning, for every MP that simply asks for it. So when I look at Peter MacKay as an example, someone who has been elected for most of the past 20 years and already served as a national party leader in the past, he’s had ample opportunity to learn French and be good enough to reach at least the Stephen Harper standard.
All that time, he had access to those lessons, those resources and ample help and opportunity to learn, including being immersed in a work environment in Ottawa where everyone from the security, to the clerks, to the mailroom staff and cafeteria workers are fluently bilingual and can be spoken to in both languages. That’s one way I kept my French sharp when I didn’t work for an MP from Quebec and didn’t have the daily chances to speak and keep my skills on point. There are precious few workplaces in Canada where you could say that, which means that MPs who are hear for a long time really have no excuse for not having learned beyond simply not wanting to do it. And that same statement goes for any other MP who’s getting into this race who’s been around the Hill for a long time. It goes for Erin O’Toole who got in yesterday. It goes for Marilyn Gladu, who’s going on her fifth year on the Hill. It goes for other people who are floating their names out there, like Michelle Rempel Garner and Candice Bergen, who have both been MPs for long over a decade. All of those MPs had the means, resources and opportunities galore to learn a second language, and didn’t take those opportunities.
In the end, the idea that all Canadians expect their leaders to be communicate with them in their official language is such a simple and reasonable idea. It’s not elitist or some plot to keep certain regions out. Being able to speak multiple languages is a skill that will take you far in life and offers all kinds of opportunities. So when it comes to rising to the highest elected office that we have in our country, it’s not unreasonable to ask for. Sure it may not be in the written rules, and in theory you could go out there and try to argue that being bilingual is not a must, that’s the right of those who might try it. But when it’s so firmly against the consensus that we have in our country, to argue that today is on the same level as trying to argue that you can be against the wide consensus we have in Canada LGBT rights and a woman’s right to choose and still be PM. Just ask Andrew Scheer how that worked out for him. Like with that issue, there should no longer be any debate about if our leaders should or should not be bilingual. This is not up for debate anymore and those who wish to try to continue to have that debate, as if the world hasn’t moved on, will likely face the same fate that Mr. Scheer just faced this past Fall.