The conservative publisher Ken Whyte wrote a masterful and much-shared essay in the Globe and Mail last week, coolly debunking the conventional wisdom that speaking French provides an invaluable electoral edge to any would-be prime minister. What actually matters, Whyte noted, is whether the candidate is from Quebec.
The French-speaking province “isn’t attracted to bilingual leaders from outside Quebec,” he wrote — what Quebeckers want is a “favorite son.” Citing a half-century of precedent, Whyte identified two paths to winning Parliament: a Quebecker party leader who loses western Canada but wins Quebec and Ontario, or a non-Quebecker who loses Quebec but wins everywhere else.
“The record of Quebeckers in the west is at least as dismal as the record of non-Quebeckers in Quebec,” he concluded, so the two strategies are mutually exclusive.
A representative of Canadian officialdom clearly had to respond to such heresy. It eventually came in the form of a limp rebuttal by Graham Fraser, the federal government’s former official languages czar.
Fraser fancies himself a persuasive bilingualism advocate, having written a 2006 book, “Sorry, I Don’t Speak French,” that many (including, they say, the Conservative prime minister who appointed him) wrongly assumed to be a fresh, contrarian take on language policy in Canada. Fraser’s case for official bilingualism has always been imperious and orthodox, alas, and his rebuttal to Whyte provides a good illustration of the widening intellectual gap between Canadian bilingualism’s critics and defenders.
Fraser arbitrarily dismissed Whyte’s observation that two modern prime ministers, John Diefenbaker and Stephen Harper, won power without Quebec on the grounds that these victories “did not last longer than one term.” He implied fluency in French is entirely a product of “time and energy” — as opposed to, say, growing up in a bilingual community. He applauded bilingual journalists who subject politicians to “a merciless series of evaluations” when their French skills appear lacking.
Curiously, however, Fraser also framed bilingualism as a form of “political leadership” — specifically, leadership to those “four million French-speaking Canadians who speak no English.”
There is an elephant in the room when people such as Fraser make appeals such as these. Bilingualism’s boosters take it for granted that it is necessary and proper for Canada’s majority to know a minority community’s language in order for that minority to enjoy full inclusion in Canadian society — but only if that minority speaks French. Indeed, Fraser darkly cited a supposedly infamous moment from the 1980s, when unilingual Tory leadership candidate John Crosbie defensively “snapped at reporters that he didn’t speak Chinese either.”
For Canada’s non-French-speaking minorities — including Chinese Canadians — conforming to the linguistic norms of the majority is not a particularly controversial expectation. It’s just taken for granted, for instance, that immigrants to cities such as Toronto and Vancouver will learn English if they want to thrive. Quebec’s own government certainly assumes minority language communities are obliged to assimilate into its French-speaking majority; the province explicitly seeks French-speaking immigrants and enforces strict policies to discourage the public use of non-French languages.
The idea that French-speaking minorities should be a different case — that the majority should accommodate them — can be justified only through a blunt appeal to law. Canada is an “officially bilingual country,” Fraser reminded. Outside Quebec, French-speakers certainly aren’t numerous enough to make a national regime of French-English bilingualism self-evidently rational on utilitarian, or even compassionate, grounds. The policy exists simply to protect Canada’s French-Canadian minority — chiefly but not exclusively in Quebec — from experiencing the natural pressures Canada’s other linguistic minorities experience as residents of an English-majority country.
To some, that’s fine. Quebeckers cite an increasingly distant past in which a lack of public accommodation for the French language was a proxy for a cruel ethnic power struggle at their expense. Modern Canada is a vastly more diverse society, however, and diversity has divorced the English language from its history as a tribal weapon. Today, English is spoken by Canadians of all backgrounds simply because it’s an efficient tool for communicating with the largest number of people.
It’s considered toxic to say, but Quebec should feel pressured by all this — not to abandon French but to adopt the disposition of European nations such as Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, in which widespread fluency with English as a second language is seen as a national strength, not an existential danger.
Those seeking to run the Conservative Party should consider making this case. A party looking to transcend its own stale shibboleths could be well positioned to help Canada move beyond one of its own.