In the past 24 hours, two curious little events have brought the issue of the French language and the Conservative Party of Canada right back into the media radar.
First, there was Prime Minister Stephen Harper giving a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in Washington. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, beginning with Obama saying that their relationship was not only strategic, but also based on friendship. Harper replied in English, agreeing with that sentiment. For American viewers, this is what they heard before American news networks cut their coverage of the press conference: “Well, first of all, thank you, Barack. Both — thank you for your friendship both personal and national. And thank you for all the work you’ve done and all of your people have done to bring us to our announcement today.”
So why would the news networks, and I mean not some of them but all of them, panic and cut to studio discussion of what is going on in Egypt? It’s because Harper suddenly began a lengthy monologue in French. Uh-oh. Harper is perfectly cabable of speaking English; in fact English is his mother tongue, with his fluency in French being a more recent acquisition following more cumbersome efforts two decades ago as a Reform Party MP. So why did he give the lion’s share of his speech in Washington in French, in doing so forcing Obama into making bad jokes and leaving a bunch of journalists twiddling their thumbs?
The answer can be given in a simple way or a more complex way. First, the simple way. Harper is Prime Minister of a minority government that currently holds only 10 of 75 seats in Québec, the only province with a predominantly French-speaking population. These are facts. Another fact is that the last federal election was in 2008, so every day that passes is one day closer to another round of voting. Harper knows that grabbing, say, a dozen or 15 Québec seats at the next election could be the difference between remaining as Prime Minister or not. That’s the simple explanation, but it’s not as straightforward as that.
The major federal parties in Canada have come to realise that it is not clever politics to have a unilingual leader. Rightly or wrongly, leaders need to be not just bilingual, but conspicuously so. They need to slip some French in while in Saskatoon and slide a bit of English in there while in Québec City. The Conservatives, Brian Mulroney aside, have traditionally been inept – sorry, suicidal – when it comes to the sensitive politics of language. What would you think if I told you that George Drew, Conservative leader in 1950s, actually called French Canadians “a defeated race” and labelled the Quebecois “French Canadian bastards”? Does that sound like good politics to you? Since the 1980s, Harper has moved from the Drew school of thinking to a far more pragmatic style of leadership. That’s why he gave his speech in Washington in French. Sure, the vast majority of viewers and people in the room had no idea what he was saying and probably thought ‘oh look, here’s some Canadian again with his fancy French that I cannot understand,’ in doing so reinforcing the widely-held view in the USA that Canada simply does not matter. But Harper had only one constituency in mind during that press conference, and it wasn’t Obama or CNN viewers, but rather Canadian voters. More specifically, Quebecois voters. That’s what makes him such a formidable politician – he is simply magnificent at knowing who he wants to speak to and staying in power.
That same weekend, however, Harper’s Québec lieutenant, MP Maxime Bernier, told a Nova Scotia radio station that there is no need for Bill 101 in Québec. This Bill is the one that, among other things, legally established French as the predominant language in business, economics and politics in the province in the 1970s. It is the main reason why I have always thought of the Parti Québécois as ‘un parti conservateur de la gauche’ – a left-wing conservative party. The Bill works in a zero-sum sort of way, with the tipping of the scales in favour of French being at the expense of English, and can be seen as reactionary. Many Quebecois embrace this reaction. So was it good politics for Bernier to publicly oppose the now-entrenched Bill 101 on the same weekend that Harper forewent the opportunity to butter-up an American audience so that he could appeal to Québec voters? Indeed, did Harper and his team decide to go French in Washington so as to limit the damage that Bernier might have done? Do the two cancel each other out? Are the Conservatives going to mess up on Quebec forever? Whatever the case, conservative commentator Tasha Kheiriddin credits Bill 101 for saving Canada even though she doesn’t actually like it. So there you go.