Stéphanie Chouinard and Andrew Parkin: The CPC needs to get back to bilingualism

Of note:

Over the last 20 years, only two of the past seven federal elections have produced majority governments. Governing and opposition parties alike have struggled to grow their popularity with Canadians. It is now Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre’s turn to try to break the logjam. 

To break through, the new leader needs to play both offence and defence. The attack comes more naturally for Poilievre, and concerns with the rising costs of living provides an ideal focus. Poilievre’s stinging criticisms align with the public mood: over the past year, inflation has surpassed COVID-19 as the top issue on Canadians’ minds

To win the next election, however, criticizing the Liberals’ handling of the economy won’t be enough. Poilievre should also address his own party’s weaknesses. Chief among these is the prolonged hangover from the 2015 election, when Conservatives engaged in what many saw as anti-immigrant dog-whistling. This undermined the party’s previous outreach to new Canadians and hampered its efforts to pick up seats in the country’s diverse — and seat-rich — cities and suburbs.

Poilievre now seems set to change course. His rhetoric calling for greater opportunities for Canadians regardless of their ethnicity is reminiscent of Diefenbaker’s push for a bill of rights. His disdain for gatekeepers is aimed partly at the roadblocks faced by immigrants seeking to settle in Canada. And his own family story — featuring his wife Anaida, an immigrant herself — cements his credentials as a leader who genuinely appreciates newcomers’ contributions to the country.

On immigration, CPC supporters are at least trying to meet him halfway. It is true that Conservative voters, on average, are less favourable to immigration than Liberal or NDP supporters. But this difference shouldn’t be misinterpreted. A slight majority of Conservatives currently disagree with the claim that there is too much immigration to Canada, and agree that we should be taking in more refugees fleeing conflicts. Three in four think immigration has a positive impact on our economy. Poilievre’s championing of struggling entrepreneurial newcomers is hardly going to tear his party apart.

Making progress on this front, however, should go hand in hand with rebuilding the party’s reputation on another key issue: official bilingualism. Much has been made of how well Poilievre himself speaks French — something that places him well ahead of his recent predecessors. But to make real gains in French-speaking areas of the country (both inside and outside of Quebec), it is the party’s personality that will count, not just the leader’s.

When it comes to language policy, this personality has been shaped by the CPC’s provincial counterparts. In 2018, Doug Ford announced he was shutting down the Ontario French-language commissioner’s office and cancelling funding for the Université de l’Ontario français — a decision that was met with public demonstrations the likes of which had not been seen since the Mike Harris era. In Alberta, both Jason Kenney’s budget cuts to Campus St-Jean and Danielle Smith’s failure to appoint a minister responsible for Francophone Affairs have cemented the UCP’s reputation as a government unfriendly to Franco-Albertans.

But without a doubt, the Conservative brand has been damaged most by New Brunswick’s premier, Blaine Higgs, a former member of the overtly francophobic Confederation of Regions (CoR) party. Since his re-election in 2020, his actions on official bilingualism have gone from dismissive to destructive, from his appointment of the former leader of the People’s Alliance (a party largely seen as the CoR’s heir) to the committee in charge of the review of the province’s Official Languages Act, to the cancelling of French immersion. In the country’s only officially bilingual province, these decisions are more than ill-advised; they are divisive. 

Poilievre thus has his work cut out for him if he is to re-brand his party as a safe choice for Francophone voters. He has already lost the CPC’s biggest asset: former official languages critic Alain Rayes left the party after the last leadership race. But the party’s base poses a bigger problem: fewer than three in ten CPC supporters think that bilingualism is a very important part of the Canadian identity. This is the lowest proportion since Environics first polled on this almost 40 years ago. While on multiculturalism, the party has decidedly become more supportive, on bilingualism, it has become less.

It is thus perhaps unsurprising that the proportion of Quebecers who sense that their language is under threat has never been higher. Canadians from the ROC tend to blame the province’s nationalist premier for fuelling Quebecers’ angst around language and culture. But as provincial governments outside Quebec erode rather than expand French-language services, and as commitment to bilingualism fades within the federal official opposition’s membership, a little less finger-pointing on the subject might be in order.

A leader’s ability to speak French is essential in Canadian politics, but it offers no short-cut to victory. To again form a majority government, CPC supporters, from coast to coast to coast, need to take a hard look at their vision of Canada and articulate a serious recommitment to official bilingualism as a modern value of Canadian society.

Stéphanie Chouinard is an associate professor in the Department of PoliticalScience at Royal Military College and at Queen’s University in Kingston. Andrew Parkin is the executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research. Find them on Twitter at @DrSChouinardand and @parkinac.

Source: Stéphanie Chouinard and Andrew Parkin: The CPC needs to get back to bilingualism

A more independent Canadian foreign policy requires embracing bilingualism

While I will leave to others to comment on the foreign policy aspect,  was struck by this para:

“No doubt, Canadians of diverse backgrounds have important contributions to bring to the foreign service. If a candidate brings energy and intellectual heft to the table but cannot speak one of the official languages, this should not constitute an absolute barrier to employment. But those recruits should be required to spend the first year or two of their careers focused almost exclusively on language training.”

Grudging in tone and ignorant in substance. All foreign service officers must be bilingual (CCC) or undertake language training to become so. One can, of course, debate whether CCC is truly bilingual but the requirement is clearly there.

Knowledge of other languages is an asset given the cost of language training, particularly for more difficult languages (I benefitted from Arabic language training during my time at GAC but only achieved an beginner-to-intermediate level):

In the recent controversy over Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau’s language skills, his defenders have advanced the usual arguments: English is the language of international business; knowing French is an asset, but not essential.

Of course, at issue is not whether a unilingual anglophone can be an effective CEO; it is that an inadequate embrace of bilingualism is a national failure. However, a less often appreciated fact is that Canada’s place on the world stage also depends on us embracing our bilingual history and character. More than ever, Canada’s national sovereignty in a changing world needs to be expressed both domestically and internationally, in French and in English.

Many Canadians may feel relieved by the declining visibility of last century’s tortuous national unity debates. However, this has come at the cost of our commitment to conceive of Canada as a shared political community. Our future as a country depends on the ability of francophones to feel that all of Canada is their home.

Moreover, Canada’s core national unity and identity dilemma remains a challenge. But today, it must be addressed in the context of a more complex international environment

Canada’s decades-long national unity struggles unfolded against a mostly consistent international backdrop: the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, during which our country was fortunate to be neighbours with the world’s unquestioned hegemon. By contrast, in today’s world, change is the norm. The rules that will inform the international order of the coming decades are currently being contested and are far from being settled.

In this new and uncertain era, our interests will not always align with those of our southern neighbour. While Washington may wish to compete with Moscow and Beijing in a bid to maintain its position as the world’s pre-eminent power, Ottawa may legitimately fear that unbridled great power competition will destabilize the rules-based international institutions that have buttressed Canada’s economic prosperity and international position for decades.

By embracing its bilingual identity on the world stage more fully, Canada would distinguish itself from its American neighbour and counter its growing reputation as a “vassal state” of the United States.

Canada requires a more independent foreign policy – one in which we are allied to the US but not necessarily aligned on every file of importance. This, in turn, warrants a term-setting mentality: rather than reacting to threats as they unfold, we must identify and stand by our own interests and vision for international order, even at the cost of occasional disagreements with our allies.

We currently lack the foreign policy framework necessary to develop and sustain such an approach. Looking ahead, a renewed commitment to bilingualism – both in Ottawa and among the population at large – can help to change that. And while some assert that the task of enhancing the diversity and representativeness of Canada’s federal institutions should supersede bilingualism, these goals are not mutually exclusive.

No doubt, Canadians of diverse backgrounds have important contributions to bring to the foreign service. If a candidate brings energy and intellectual heft to the table but cannot speak one of the official languages, this should not constitute an absolute barrier to employment. But those recruits should be required to spend the first year or two of their careers focused almost exclusively on language training.

If individuals wish to join our foreign service, or the federal public service more broadly, they must be willing to advance the interests of Canada. Fostering an independent foreign policy is one such interest – and one that cannot occur in a vacuum. It will rely upon the development of a national strategic approach and school of thought fit for a world in transition, replete with its own vocabulary.

Such a task must, in large part, be pursued through the use of both of our own distinctive national languages. The growing Americanization of our political and intellectual culture – owing to factors such as the gravitational pull of U.S. media and the dominance in policy circles of American concepts – casts doubt on whether a Canada that only thinks in English will ever be able to think for itself.

At a time of significant global change, a strengthened commitment to bilingualism would not only infuse our national project with renewed energy at home, but also signal that Canada is willing to set the terms of its international position.

Jean Charest is a partner at McCarthy Tétrault and was premier of Quebec from 2003 to 2012. Zachary Paikin is a research fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, a Toronto-based international affairs think tank. Stéphanie Chouinard is associate professor of political science at the Royal Military College and a fellow of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Source: A more independent Canadian foreign policy requires embracing bilingualism