THE LINGUISTIC POLITICS OF CANADA: IS FRENCH THE KEY TO POLITICAL SUCCESS?

As with many countries, the languages of Canada are enshrined in its colonial history. However, French is rooted that bit deeper into Canadian life with bilingualism enshrined into law at a federal level. Yet, if you were to ask if there are any laws requiring a Canadian prime minister to be bilingual, the answer is a firm no.


The country’s bilingualism often causes controversy. From Trudeau’s ‘rusty’ French skills, to his defiance to answer a question in French because ‘we are in Quebec’, and, most recently, the unilingual labelling of imported disinfectants during the pandemic. We also cannot forget the one question that seems to arise during elections - how important are the French skills of a potential Canadian Prime Minister? Should it be a requirement?


Every 3 in 10 Canadians speak French as a mother tongue. Around 7.2 million Canadians. 20.6% of the population. Although no match to the sheer number of Anglophones, a community that deserves to be understood nonetheless. 


Up until 1969, when bilingualism became official in Canada, a mere 3 out of the 15 previous Prime Ministers spoke a confident level of French - two of which had French heritage. It was neither an expectation nor a requirement needed to fulfil the role. However, these were different times. It was only during Lester Pearson’s office (1963-1968) that it became a requirement for Canadians to be able to access federal services in both languages with equal levels of accessibility. What seems a basic human right and a mark of respect today, before a lucky opportunity.


Perhaps surprisingly, Pearson spoke very little French and what he did speak wasn’t that great. Nonetheless, he set the grounding for his successor, Pierre Trudeau, the late father of current PM Justin Trudeau, to legally bind bilingualism at a federal level. This raises the question: does being bilingual define a PM’s ability to rightfully uphold the importance of bilingualism? 


Personally, one thing that comes to mind when I think of a unilingual prime minister is: how can they really understand the true value of bilingualism? We all know that speaking another language is much more than stringing a sentence together - it’s about embracing a new culture, the people and a new set of eyes to see the world in. How can policies accurately represent this if you have no understanding of it? 


It could be that Pearson proves my argument wrong, or today it could be a matter of respect rather than competence, but French is key to winning the hearts of many Québécois and even Canadians in general.


A Nielsen survey carried out for the Official Languages Commissioner shows that 86% of Canadians believe the PM should be bilingual. Such findings have led the commissioner to state that it is now ‘an unwritten rule’ and a ‘critical qualification for political leadership’.


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