Canada has come a long way since the bad old days when John Diefenbaker was prime minister and would mangle the French language so badly Quebecers would pray he'd switch to English - or perhaps Urdu. But if Sunday's "French-language" debate among federal Liberal leadership candidates is anything to go by, perhaps we haven't come quite as far as many people assume.
Of the 10 contenders, only four spoke French with any kind of fluency. And one of those was the lone francophone in the race, Stephane Dion, who appears to speak English better than any of his opponents speak French.
The only others who came anywhere close to matching Dion were Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff (whose supercilious Parisian accent might be a little offputting in Quebec) and Joe Volpe.
The rest ranked from bad to atrocious. And some of them have no excuse. Scott Brison, for example, is running for the leadership of a national party for the second time in his career. You'd think that by now, after running for the Tory leadership against Stephen Harper and after a subsequent stint in Paul Martin's Liberal cabinet, Brison would realize that a confident knowledge of Canada's two official languages is a prerequisite for the prime minister's job.
And then there's Ken Dryden. He, too, served in Martin's cabinet and - who could forget? - as goalie for the Montreal Canadiens in the glory years of the 1970s. But you'd never know that part from his performance in Quebec City on Sunday.
When Dryden tried to debate Brison and Gerard Kennedy about Canada's ability to meet the standards set by the Kyoto accord, the whole exchange was so utterly incomprehensible it must have left the simultaneous translators scratching their heads trying to figure out how to put it into English.
In a class by herself, however, was Hedy Fry, who on several occasions simply gave up on French and made her points in English, much to the dismay of a generally friendly crowd of Quebec Liberals. Fry has a far smaller chance of getting the leader's job than Dryden or Brison, but she has been a member of Parliament since 1993 and has served in a couple of cabinets. She should be more nearly bilingual by now.
It is, as Bob Rae told The Gazette's editorial board yesterday, unthinkable that the leader of the Liberal Party should be unable to speak French. It's even less thinkable that the prime minister of a bilingual country shouldn't be able to speak both official languages.
A PM doesn't have to be as flawlessly bilingual as Jean Charest or as eloquent as Pierre Trudeau or as folksily charming as Brian Mulroney, but he (or she) should be able to explain his or her policies, program, and vision for the country clearly and forcefully in both French and English. Anything less just isn't acceptable.