Peter MacKay and the French Factor

L. Ian MacDonald

January 30, 2020

It’s a matter of political convention that Canada’s prime minister be able to speak both English and French.

Lester B. Pearson was the last unilingual prime minister, and that was two generations ago. It was in 1968 that Pearson handed the reins of office to his successor, the thoroughly bilingual, bicultural Pierre Trudeau.

Every one of Pearson’s successors—Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau has been at least functionally bilingual, with Justin Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien occupying the equal-fluency end of the spectrum.

That’s nine prime ministers of the modern era, every one of them able to communicate in English and French, not always at the level of Shakespeare or Molière, but as a matter of simple courtesy and political common sense. For four of them—the two Trudeaus, Chrétien and Mulroney — their language proficiency contributed to their political advantage as favourite sons of Quebec.

The prime minister is really the only member of the government who must meet the language litmus test. Even the most senior cabinet posts—such as Foreign Affairs, Defence and Justice—can be filled by unilingual members of the government of the day.

Peter MacKay knows that—he’s occupied all three of those important portfolios as a unilingual anglophone. He had plenty of opportunities along the way to improve his French, in the same way Harper, Campbell and Clark did, by investing time and energy in it as a political asset if not a professional necessity.

MacKay left politics in May 2015 after a near-decade in cabinet to be with his growing family and join the law firm Baker McKenzie in Toronto. He couldn’t have foreseen then that he would be back on the campaign trail in only five years, seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada that he co-founded with Stephen Harper back in the Alliance-Tory merger of 2003.

But there was MacKay, on January 25, at home in Stellarton, in his former Nova Scotia riding of Central Nova, announcing for leader in a town that understandably greeted him warmly as a native son.

It happened to be Robbie Burns Day, and MacKay had the opportunity to quote the Scottish poet about having the gift to “see ourselves as others see us.” In a roomful of Scottish Canadians, it was evident what they saw in MacKay—one of their own, a man who could be prime minister.

And why not? It was the end of the week that wasn’t for MacKay’s prospective opponents. On successive days, Jean Charest, Rona Ambrose and then Pierre Poilievre all took a pass on a race they hadn’t yet entered, leaving MacKay as the obvious front-runner.

All went well enough, except for the inevitable French-language status check. Reading his 20-minute opening statement on a teleprompter, he mispronounced, not to say mangled, three successive words in French.

“J’ai sera candidate,” he said, which, roughly translated, is “I have you will be a female candidate.” He should have said “Je serai candidat,” I will be a candidate.  

The headline writers at Le Journal de Québec and Journal de Montréal had fun with that, circling MacKay’s errors in enlarged type under a screaming front page hedder: “Good Luck, Mister!”

In the accompanying article, the twin Québecor tabloids concluded that MacKay “gave more proof yesterday of his inability to speak French.” (Wait until the French press gets around to asking a serious question about where MacKay stands on Quebec’s Bill 21, the Legault government’s law on secularism). The English-language press, happily joined in the piling on. “Why Can’t Peter MacKay Speak French?” Maclean’s asked in a hedder over a column by Stephen Maher.

Though MacKay had brought this on himself, the coverage was unfair in that it was somewhat incomplete. That key quote was not his only line in French and the others were delivered without any equally odd mistakes. But his accent was more that of a guy who’d just spent an hour on Rosetta Stone rather than a month in an immersion course at the Centre Linguistique de Jonquière. The more immediate question from a logistical and/or staffing perspective was, if he was reading from a prompter where the French was presumably phoneticized, what went wrong with the marquee clip?

In substantive terms, it was interesting that standing in central Nova Scotia, he spoke pointedly of respect for Quebec, of a party that “shares your values”, including the recognition by the previous Conservative government of Quebec as a “a nation within Canada.”

Those messages will be much more effectively delivered if he can at least show that he’s put in the effort on his French, the way Harper’s evolution in French earned him respect and goodwill in Quebec that he might not have had otherwise. MacKay needs to say, in French, that the first thing he’ll do on winning the leadership is start working hard on his French.

That’s one way of turning the page, more so than by changing the subject in announcing on Twitter that he’ll apply to walk in the Toronto Pride parade on June 28, the day after the leadership, in which he would walk either as party leader or a private citizen.

Brilliant work by Team MacKay, deflecting attention from MacKay’s linguistic shortcomings to the party’s own deficiencies on the LGBTQ front. For follow-up, of course, the media predictably asked the other candidates if they’d be walking in Pride parades, as Andrew Scheer notoriously didn’t, even stubbornly reiterating his refusal to do so after the election, when he was already done.

For good measure on the language issue, the follow-up story became lengthy features and columns on the lamentable state of French second-language training in schools, from interminable waiting lists and inadequate funding to angry parents.

MacKay might turn the issue to his favour by promising to step up with the provinces on bilingual education. He actually has the credentials to say: “Believe me, I know we can do better.”

Starting with himself.


L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy.