It’s 2020, and it seems we’re in a place in Canadian politics again where the question of leadership is also a question of language.
Should the leader of a federal party in Canada be required to speak both of Canada’s official languages? Just how bilingual is bilingual enough? How does a candidate’s facility in both languages affect the ability to win?
Maybe we should be asking a different question: Why would anyone who doesn’t speak both languages well even bother applying for the job?
We’re talking about this now, of course, because the Conservative Party of Canada is choosing a new leader in June. The three declared candidates running to be chosen leader (and eventually, they hope, prime minister) — Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole and Marilyn Gladu — are all able to speak French with varying degrees of success. But we’d be hard-pressed to call any of them fluent.
When MacKay launched his campaign this past weekend in Nova Scotia, he read his French lines off a Teleprompter. In spite of the visual aid, he still made grammatical errors and struggled with pronunciation.
Good luck, Mr. MacKay
His efforts were rewarded with a snarky front page in Le Journal de Quebec (the headline: “Good Luck Mister!”). MacKay took no questions in either official language, so it’s hard to know how he’d handle answering them in a campaign setting. It’s fair to say, though, that French does not come easily to this son of the Maritimes.
When asked directly about his ability to speak French, MacKay told columnist John Ivison in the National Post that he knows he needs to improve, but his life since leaving federal politics in 2015 hasn’t afforded him as many opportunities to speak French.
O’Toole, meanwhile, launched his campaign on Monday with two videos. In the French version, O’Toole clearly is struggling with a strong accent and poor pronunciation.
Now, some of you are asking, “So what? Where does anyone get off criticizing a politician’s language skills?”
Like a lot of Canadians, I grew up in a unilingual home — but I’ve spent my entire life pursuing fluency in French. My home province of Manitoba gave me a few advantages the candidates may not share: a broad push toward French immersion, a strong Francophone community. But learning to be comfortable in a second language isn’t something you do in childhood and then set aside. Every opportunity I had to immerse myself in the language, I took.
Bilingualism has served me well. I still make mistakes, of course. (Listen in to Radio-Canada’s Midi-Info with Michel C. Auger, who has to listen to my occasional flubs every second Friday of the month when I do a political panel.) But this isn’t about me.
It isn’t even about the candidates themselves — who may indeed speak French competently enough to communicate directly with Canadian francophones across the country.
It’s not about the politicians. It’s about the people they want to represent.
In 2011, according to Statistics Canada, some 7.3 million Canadians cited French as their mother tongue; even more said they speak French at home. And in 2016, the agency reported that bilingualism had increased in most provinces and territories and had reached its highest proportion ever nationally: 17.9 per cent.
The vast majority of French-speaking Canadians are, of course, living in Quebec, but there are strong pockets of francophones across the country. Canada declared French and English its official languages in 1969 — which means that every federal institution is required to offer services in both languages, if asked.
A 2016 poll commissioned by the Official Languages Commission found that a vast majority of Canadians support official bilingualism — and a full 86 per cent of Canadians think the prime minister should be bilingual.
Language and elections
So that’s the statistical argument: French is a fact of life in Canada, not just in Quebec, and Canadians expect their leaders to be fluent. But there are crass political factors at play as well.
Quebec holds 78 federal seats. That’s more than Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta combined. It’s not impossible to form a majority government without Quebec: Stephen Harper managed it in 2011 with only five MPs from the province. But doing well in Quebec makes it a lot easier.
Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe we should expect our leaders to communicate well in both official languages because it’s part of the job — not because it makes it easier to win and hold power. Choosing to represent people in public life should include working hard to understand them on their own terms, to recognize their importance as individuals and as members of a living culture. That’s leadership.
Final point: there are roughly 90 different living Indigenous languages in Canada — three out of four of them are considered endangered. Last year, in an attempt to save at least some of them, the government passed the Indigenous Languages Act. The legislation doesn’t give any Indigenous language official status, but it does allow for federal documents to be translated into Indigenous tongues and also launched a commissioner’s office tasked with trying to protect some of these endangered languages.
Think about that — ninety different languages, most of them fading away. Under the circumstances, asking our leaders to talk to us in just two languages doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Canada’s military forces are “ready” to meet their commitments should Russia’s war in Ukraine spread to NATO countries, but it would be a “challenge” to launch a larger scale operation in the long term, with ongoing personnel and equipment shortages, according to Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre.
Eyre told Joyce Napier on CTV’s Question Period in an interview airing Sunday that while the forces in Europe are “ready for the tactical mission they’ve been assigned,” he has larger concerns about strategic readiness. He said there’s a lack of people and equipment, and further concern around the ability to sustain a larger scale mission in the longer term.
The Canadian Armed Forces are still struggling to retain staff, with nearly 10,000 fewer trained personnel than they’d need to be at full force, and equipment stocks below what they require.
“We’ve got challenges in all of those,” Eyre said, adding the numbers reflect what’s been “let slip over decades, as we’ve focused on the more immediate (needs).”
Eyre said Canada’s military would be “hard pressed” to launch another large-scale operation like it had in Afghanistan, as an example, without having to redistribute its resources around the globe, as threats evolve.
“The military that we have now is going to be increasingly called upon to support Canada and to support Canadian interests, to support our allies overseas, but as well at home,” Eyre said, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate change impacting the landscape in the Arctic, and an increase in digital and cybersecurity threats.
“It’s always a case of prioritization and balancing our deployments around the globe, not just with what, but when, and with who … and getting that balance right is something that that we’re working on,” he said. “Could we use more? Yeah, absolutely. But we operate with what we have.”
“We prioritize and balance based on what our allies need, and what the demand signals, just to make sure that we achieve the strategic effect the government wants us to achieve,” he also said.
Meanwhile Defence Minister Anita Anand said on CTV’s Question Period last week that Canada should “be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” and balance its NATO commitments with securing the Arctic and promoting peace in the Indo-Pacific.
Eyre said his number one priority is getting Canada’s armed forces up to full strength, with an attrition rate of 9.3 per cent between both regular and reserve forces, up from 6.9 per cent last year. The Canadian Armed Forces Retention Strategy was released just last month.
“We are facing the same challenge that every other industry out there is facing in terms of a really tight labor market,” Eyre said. “Every other military in the West is facing the same challenge.”
He explained the organization is working on streamlining its recruitment process, among other changes, to meet the increasing need, with the goal to get numbers up “as quickly as possible.”
“Ideally, would have been yesterday,” he said. “We’re looking at where we can accelerate the recruiting, the training, and optimizing our training pipeline.”
Soccer wasn’t really a thing when I was a kid. I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s. Sure, we all had soccer balls. And we played a lot of what should be more accurately called, Kick and Run. But I – and all my friends – did not really know the rules, the teams or the players. We might’ve heard of Pelé, but not more than that.
We followed hockey, baseball, football (CFL and NFL) and basketball, in that order. I did occasionally watch soccer on TV, but that was because we didn’t have a lot of channels and the soothing English accents often lulled me to sleep.
Things are much different now. My 13-year-old son is a massive soccer fan. He plays on a team three or four times a week. His schoolmates include a lot of second-generation Canadians, whose parents came from soccer-obsessed nations. He watches Premier League and Championship League matches. He’s watches La Liga and Bundesliga. He watches World Cup qualifiers and could tell me the backstory on most of the players. In fact, he watches classic games on YouTube and plays FIFA22 on his PS4 and as a result, knows more about Pelé than I ever did. But, because of him, I now watch enough football to know a game is a match, a goalie is a keeper and I know which plays end up in corner kicks or throw-ins.
I once asked him, “How well do you know the Germany national team?” and he said, “Not very well.” He then proceeded to name seven of their 11 starters. It’s a different world.
I still know almost nothing compared to the other soccer dads, but like millions of Canadians, I watched Canada’s qualifying matches and I know we have a great team, with some stellar players who are worth watching. The qualifying matches regularly beat both hockey games and CFL football when it comes to viewership.
But we should care about more than just the matches themselves. The World Cup is one of the biggest and most lucrative sports spectacles on Earth. This will be the first one hosted in the Middle East. And although Qatar may look shiny and new on TV, it’s mired in what many Western nations believe to be medieval and backwards policies on working conditions, LGBTQ2S+ and women’s rights.
Finding people to talk about it in Qatar is NOT easy. One of W5’s goals this week was to talk to migrant workers to describe how they were treated, their living conditions and their labour rights. Most were too afraid to talk to us.
And to confound things, there have been many stories of journalists being detained or arrested for reporting on migrant workers. Last week, a Danish reporter was live on TV from Qatar and when asked what things were like there, he directed his camera operator to pan left – revealing security officials in golf carts, who immediately tried to stop the live hit. The next day Qatari officials apologized, but the message was clear: we can stop you from reporting when we want. It’s a fascinating video that’s been viewed millions of times around the globe.
The Qatari government denies they’ve put any restrictions on media. In a tweet, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy says “several regional and international media outlets are based in Qatar, and thousands of journalists report from Qatar freely without interference each year.”
Not everyone is convinced. Qatar ranks 118 out of 180 countries in the 2022 Press Freedom index, published by Reporters Without Borders. Freedom House, which is a U.S.-based freedom watchdog, gives Qatar a 25 out of 100 score on Global Freedom, which includes freedom of expression. (Canada ranks 98 and the US ranks 83).
A Reuters Institute column from last week on press freedom in Qatar suggests authorities obscure press freedom laws, by hiding behind trespassing laws.
“One of the most common risks when doing journalistic work in Qatar is to be accused of trespassing. This is what Halvor Ekeland and Lokman Ghorbani of Norwegian state broadcaster NRK were accused of when they were arrested by officers of Qatar’s Criminal Investigations Department in November 2021, while covering World Cup preparations. The journalists were held for over 30 hours before being released without charge. They deny they were filming without permission,” says the article.
A little insider info: I have personally written, “we don’t want you to get arrested, but…” at least twice in correspondence with our team in Qatar. I’ve never encouraged anyone to break the law of course, but sometimes doing our jobs leads police or security into thinking they have a duty (or at least a right) to stop you.
OTTAWA — Haven’t you herd? A dramatic tale of 20 escaped cows, nine cowboys and a drone recently unfolded in St-Sévère, Que., and it behooved a Canadian senator to milk it for all it was worth.
Prompting priceless reactions of surprise from her colleagues, Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne recounted the story of the bovine fugitives in the Senate chamber this week — and attempted to make a moo-ving point about politics.
“Honourable senators, usually, when we do tributes here, it is to recognize the achievements of our fellow citizens,” Miville-Dechêne began in French, having chosen to wear a white blouse with black spots for the occasion.
“However, today, I want to express my amused admiration for a remarkably determined herd of cows.”
On a day when senators paid tribute to a late Alberta pastor, the crash of a luxury steamer off the coast of Newfoundland in 1918 and environmental negotiators at the recent climate talks in Egypt, senators seated near Miville-Dechêne seemed udderly taken aback by the lighter fare — but there are no reports that they had beef with what she was saying.
Miville-Dechêne’s storytelling touched on the highlights of the cows’ evasion of authorities after a summer jailbreak — from their wont to jump fences like deer to a local official’s entreaty that she would not go running after cattle in a dress and high heels.
The climax of her narrative came as nine cowboys — eight on horseback, one with a drone — arrived from the western festival in nearby St-Tite, Que., north of Trois-Rivières, and nearly nabbed the vagabonds before they fled through a cornfield.
“They are still on the run, hiding in the woods by day and grazing by night,” said Miville-Dechêne, with a note of pride and perhaps a hint of fromage.
She neglected to mention the reported costs of the twilight vandalism, which locals say has cost at least $20,000.
But Miville-Dechêne did save some of her praise for the humans in the story, congratulating the municipal general manager, Marie-Andrée Cadorette, for her “dogged determination,” and commending the would-be wranglers for stepping up when every government department and police force in Quebec said there was nothing they could do.
“There is a political lesson in there somewhere,” said the former journalist.
Miville-Dechêne ended on what could perhaps be interpreted as a butchered metaphor about non-partisanship: “Finally, I would like to confess my unbridled admiration for these cows that have found freedom and are still out there, frolicking about. While we overcomplicate things, these cows are learning to jump fences.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.
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