Saturday, May 13, 2006

Je Ne Parlez-Vous Le Francais Too Good

The Liberal Party's claim to being the Natural Governing Party of Canada has historically owed much to its strength, if not outright dominance, in Quebec. And the Trudeaupian myth of official bilingualism, of course.

A myth that can't even be sustained any longer within the Liberal Party, it seems:

By objective standards, more than half of the candidates for the leadership of the Liberal Party are not bilingual. By the candidates' own admissions, the winner must be.

Language has become an issue in the Liberal leadership campaign, a race with 10 anglophones and one francophone vying to lead a party that badly needs to rebuild in Quebec and views itself as the national-unity party that claims bilingualism as its brand.


Only five of the 11 candidates now running for the Liberal leadership were given passing grades when rated against the scale for a bilingualism certificate by University of Ottawa professor Hélène Knoerr. Bob Rae topped the list, followed closely by Michael Ignatieff, but Stéphane Dion (who was tested on his English fluency), Joe Volpe and Martha Hall Findlay also made the grade.

“The others were varying degrees of catastrophes,” Prof. Knoerr said.


The Globe and Mail asked all 11 candidates the same four questions in their second language — English for Mr. Dion, and French for the others. Prof. Knoerr, a bilingual expert in French as a second language at the University of Ottawa, evaluated them according to a scale used for certifying second-language ability. Only one, Ms. Fry, felt that she could not complete the interview.

The interviews ranged from three to 11 minutes, and it was usually those who rated lowest who took the longest time. That was in part because of language, but perhaps also because of the questions: When Mr. Rae was asked if he could take part in a French-language leaders debate and beat Mr. Duceppe, his answer was simply, “Yes.” At any rate, Prof. Knoerr used only about four minutes of each interview for the evaluations, to provide an equal comparison.

But the current crop of leadership contenders' inability to speak French fluently will not stop the Liberals from claiming that only their party can adequately represent Quebec's interests. The Liberal Party cannot afford to let go of the myth of being the sole interlocutor between English Canada and Quebec; it is all that it has left to keep from flying apart.

If the next Liberal leader can't speak acceptable French, watch for him to revive the traditional role of Quebec lieutenant to act as his viceroy and interpreter in Quebec--not unlike how Ernest Lapointe and Louis St. Laurent did the same for Mackenzie King.

The Liberals may be effectively a Toronto party, but they can't admit it, or they won't even have Toronto left.

Source: Globe and Mail

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