The Politics of Bilingualism

Last week, 13 of the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) faced off in a French-language debate. Kevin O’Leary, who has quickly taken the lead in the race [Ed.: WHELP!], is noticeably absent from that list because he didn’t declare his candidacy until a few days after the debate had taken place – a fact that did not register as coincidental for many observers.

Unfortunately for francophone Canada, for the majority of these candidates, the political ideas, commitments, and capacity for engaged discussion were not really available for them to assess, due to the limited French-language skills many of them had. Of the 13, two were native French speakers, and, according to a panel of reviewers organized by the CBC, only two of the non-native speakers demonstrated the ability to, well, debate in the French language (ie. communicate without reliance on pre-written notes).

There are a couple of things this illustrates about the politics of bilingualism (and the bilingualism of politics) in Canada.

  1. Despite the basic premise of official bilingualism, it requires little scratching of the surface to observe that this is a very assymetrical bilingualism. It is possible for monolingual anglophones to achieve a high level of political success at the federal level, while the reverse is almost unfathomable. Prime Minister Jean Chretien comes to mind as an example of a francophone whose accented English was frequently mocked or critiqued in English Canada, but in truth his ability to express himself fluently in both languages was quite strong (and any issues with his pronunciation were also related to his childhood Bell’s palsy, the mocking of which is certainly textbook ableism). In short, though: any candidate for leadership of a nationwide party (the term ‘nationwide’ there communicating the exception of the Bloq Quebecois, which only runs candidates in Quebec [Ed.: Canadian politics is complicated, yo]) that couldn’t debate in English would quite simply never consider a run.
  2. I don’t think it’s a coincidence this linguistic gap is so significant within the Conservative Party in particular. The regionalized nature of Canadian politics is such that the CPC is able to focus on winning seats mainly in the West and in suburban Ontario, and Quebec is not a factor. The Liberal party, and recently the NDP, relies heavily on campaigning in Quebec in order to win a significant number of seats and contend for government. The ways in which this regional pattern of partisanism maps onto language generates a self-reinforcing dynamic that ultimately strengthens the connections between language-region-partisan politics in ways that, to my mind unfortunately, limit the terms of debate. Some analysts believe the CPC needs to pay more attention to Quebec in forthcoming elections, but it’s also possible they could campaign with more force in Atlantic Canada and Ontario in order to gain back the seats Trudeau took in 2015.
  3. Say what you will about the poor showing in French of some of the candidates in the debate – at least they showed up and made an effort to communicate their positions to francophone Canada. Kevin O’Leary, in choosing to completely avoid the debate (by days), dismisses the very notion that the French language, and the concerns of its speakers, matter to his vision for Canada. O’Leary likes to claim that being from Montreal, he is able to understand Quebecois concerns, but detaching Quebecois from the French language seems like a recipe for failure (in Quebec, and with French speakers across the country) to me.
  4. As Celine Cooper observes in the analysis I also linked above, the language skills of each of the various candidates can’t be detached from the way that language policy is organized across the country – with each province taking responsibility for education, and official language teaching incorporated often as an obligation rather than as something that provinces understand to be central to their locally-based needs, it requires some effort for individuals to obtain English-French bilingualism. If widespread bilingualism were to become a real priority, the federal and provincial governments would have to work out a way to implement that; the fact that language policy in Canada has remained essentially static for decades would seem to indicate we are fine with the regionalized distribution of our official languages, and everything this implies for electoral politics.

It feels a bit indulgent to be writing this during the days after Donald Trump has firmly put down his signpost in the realm of the “English Only” movement in the United States by deleting the Spanish language version of the White House web pages, but I am often surprised at how even Canadians seem to lack understanding of the social dynamics underlying official bilingualism in this country. Language policy, as it turns out, is a complex thing that can’t be reduced to what happens on paper, but has to be understood in relation to what it looks like in practice.

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