William Watson: Speaking Chinese to Quebeckers


Le National Post fait la promotion du très bilingue « John » Charest

I met the late John Crosbie, whose state funeral was Thursday, just once. It was so long ago it was at a big GATT meeting in Montreal — remember the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade? — when the WTO was just a twinkle in international trade bureaucrats’ eyes. We were all waiting for a lunch to begin. He looked a little lost so I helped him get to where he was supposed to be going. I was tickled, as one is, that when I introduced myself he seemed to know who I was, or at least had the good manners to pretend to. We chatted briefly and unmemorably. I was surprised that this most flamboyant of public speakers, one of his generation’s best political talkers, was clearly very shy, though of course it’s now common knowledge he was.

As fans of free trade, all economists have a soft spot for John Crosbie, who put Canada-U.S. free trade at the centre of his Conservative leadership campaign in 1983. He came to grief in that campaign for his inability to speak French, which he underlined in bold with his characteristically logical but undiplomatic explanation that “I cannot talk to the Chinese people in their language, either” yet when he visited China he did just fine. Some Quebeckers — separatist ones — were probably quite happy to be compared with the nationals of a foreign country, since that’s what they soon hoped to be. Just about everyone else concluded this was not a good thing to say to, at or about your fellow countrymen.

As fans of free trade, all economists have a soft spot for John Crosbie


As I remember it, the consensus in 1983 was that Crosbie’s attempt for the leadership was the last one we’d ever see by a unilingual English-speaker. Brian Mulroney’s French was obviously excellent: some observers argue he’s both more at home and more effective in French than English. Stephen Harper’s French was dogged but passable. But now the Conservatives seem about to retreat to pre-Crosbie habits and consider candidates who can’t really get by in the other official language: Rona Ambrose for one, Peter MacKay for another — though there are competing evaluations of MacKay’s French, in part because no one has heard him speak it in years.

My own view of the past election is not the now apparently conventional one — that it was a slam dunk that Andrew Scheer blew because voters no longer accepted his antiquated (i.e., about 10-year-old) views on abortion and homosexuality. First, it was not a slam dunk. Many Canadians were annoyed with Justin Trudeau, for obvious reasons, but probably not annoyed enough to send him into political oblivion without a second chance. And Scheer did blow it to a degree. He didn’t do as well as he might have done because of his unwillingness and/or inability to explain himself. And maybe his unwillingness had something to do with his inability.

Conservative party Leader Andrew Scheer speaks during a press conference following the federal leaders French debate in Gatineau, Que., on Oct. 10, 2019. Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images

A nagging, ideologically hostile press in desperate search of daily scoops, whether real or contrived — the CBC’s Katie Simpson comes to mind — hounded Scheer without pause on social issues. Instead of explaining his position, which is not actually far from that of his fellow Catholic, Justin Trudeau, and thereby showing himself to be a reasonable person, Scheer parroted the line that his party would not be legislating in these areas. Its proponents probably considered this rope-a-dope strategy safe. But it was a terrible strategy for getting Canadians to know and trust a newcomer.

I wonder if Scheer’s unwillingness to elaborate in English was related to his inability to elaborate in French, for his French was at best rudimentary. This became disastrously clear in the TV debates in French but also during his command performance on one of Quebec’s most-watched TV programs, Tout le monde en parle, a Sunday-evening Radio-Canada talk show with typically boffo ratings. Scheer tried gamely. But if he got any credit, it was for guts rather than for anything he said.

The Quebec dairy farmers who gave Scheer the leadership in order to stop Maxime Bernier obviously didn’t mind that he could barely make himself understood in French. But how many other people are likely to vote for someone to lead their country who doesn’t really speak their language? It might be thought bigoted or short-sighted to hold a person’s lack of fluency against him. But it’s pretty basic. I thought Stéphane Dion’s English was not fluent enough for him to be prime minister — though I admired his anti-separatism immensely — and millions of English-speakers clearly agreed with me.

It might be thought bigoted or short-sighted to hold a person’s lack of fluency against him. But it’s pretty basic


It’s true, the proportion of Canadians whose mother tongue is French has been declining. When I was young it was a quarter. It’s now close to just a fifth. But it is concentrated geographically. While it’s arithmetically possible to form a government without seats in Quebec it’s not easy. Quebec has 78 of 338 seats in the House of Commons, or 23 per cent of them. A majority is 170. If you don’t get any Quebec seats, you need 65 per cent of all the others, almost two out of three. Do-able, but hardly easy. And some people — not a lot, but some — won’t vote for you in the rest of the country if you are the type of party that writes off Quebec.

An obvious concern is that among fluently bilingual Canadians there are few who aren’t Quebeckers— Jean Charest, a Quebecker, will certainly be the most bilingual candidate if he does run — and there also aren’t many, possibly because of that, who are of the libertarian bent that would be popular in Alberta in particular and the West generally.

Jean Charest speaks during a panel discussion at the Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on Nov. 13, 2019. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

That’s not necessarily true. Charest is no libertarian but his policy decision while Quebec premier to raise university tuition fees so that more of the burden of their education fell on the children of the upper classes and their families sparked what became at the time the world-famous Maple Spring. Its ending was at best ambiguous, and maybe the lesson Charest learned was never to do that sort of thing again. But it was Mike Harris-like in its inspiration. And he toughed it out for a long time.

As for ideological purity, the Conservatives had a bilingual Quebecker with libertarian tendencies and he was well on his way to becoming party leader until the dairy farmers decided to drive him into political exile instead. Maxime Bernier probably won’t be running for leader again but it’s not impossible that some very bilingual candidate is also sympathetic to markets and liberty.

In any case, for this job French is required.