Pauline Marois's leadership of the Parti Québécois is a first in more ways than one. She is, of course, the first woman to lead a major political party in Quebec. She is also the first PQ leader not to be perfectly comfortable speaking English.
René Lévesque spoke English fluently, having grown up in the English-speaking town of New Carlisle and spending the Second World War in Europe with American troops. Although bilingual, neither Robert Bourassa nor Claude Ryan had his ease and fluency in English.
Jacques Parizeau evidently enjoyed using the British English he picked up at the London School of Economics, while Bourassa, a Harvard man, spoke his English adequately, without any style or apparent pleasure.
Jean Charest raised the Liberal standard considerably, but Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry were not impressed. (And I'm pretty sure Charest doesn't speak Spanish or Latin as Landry does!)
At the federal level, with the notable exception of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Liberal leaders speak even worse English than their provincial counterparts. Jean Chrétien carefully cultivated his non-threatening image with a heavily accented pea-soup English while Stéphane Dion has the bookish accent of someone who learned the language by reading, not talking. Their Bloc opponent Gilles Duceppe's English, while it would've been considered mediocre in Quebec City, was paradoxically more than good enough by the standards set by Quebec federal politicians.
Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin spoke easily in French and English, but they are anglophones.
The current situation, with Pauline Marois speaking considerably less English than the fluent Jean Charest, is the exception, not the norm.
Marois is under attack these days for suggesting that the Quebec education system should make sure that all children are functionally bilingual when they graduate from high school. She demanded that English be taught from the first grade on, and even that some form of immersion be created, by teaching geography and history in English, for example.
As expected, the cowardly right of the independence movement opposed the plan violently. More frighteningly, some intellectual elites, such as author and playwright Victor-Lévy Beaulieu used the T-word. Treason.
VLB, as he is known, certainly speaks English. He just published a 1,000-page essay on James Joyce, one of the most notoriously difficult writers in the English language.
Yet the knowledge of English has never diminished Beaulieu's commitment to independence or his passion for the French language.
The knowledge of English has never had a negative correlation with support for Quebec's independence or support for the protection of French. Support for independence rises in the francophone community with education level and income, both of which usually suggest some knowledge of English.
Nor does bilingualism diminish a students' ability to speak and write in their mother tongue. Many studies have demonstrated that the kids who go through the French-immersion program in the rest of Canada score better in English than those who go through the regular program!
The modern independence movement was born in Montreal's bilingual francophone intellectual community, inspired by hearing Martin Luther King and Gandhi speak about freedom, justice and liberty, in English.
Eighty to 90 per cent of young people in Scandinavian countries speak English. Yet they are still Swedes and Finns, still speak Swedish and Finnish and still play hockey, not football. If the Quebec school system could properly teach English to Quebec's youth, the English language CEGEPs and universities would not look so attractive to young people who want to practise the language.
By suggesting that the knowledge of English is dangerous for the people, that they are not ready or that it could threaten the integration of immigrants, Marois's elitist bilingual opponents like Beaulieu managed to demonstrate only that speaking English won't make you smarter either.
Georges Boulanger is a writer and truck driver. He blogs at angryfrenchguy.com
"Separatists for English Unite!"
Pauline Marois and her problem with English
The PQ leader must fight against elitist bilingual opponents in her own party