EDITORIAL – Why prime ministers shouldn’t have to be fluent in French

(Image: Peter MacKay, Facebook)

An editorial by Mel Rothenburger.

SO FAR, PETER MACKAY’S FRENCH is the biggest issue to come up in the federal Conservative leadership “race.”

Thank goodness there’s something to add interest to this snoozer.

As far as I can tell, MacKay has a pretty good French accent but he has trouble with some of the words. Does this make him ineligible to lead a federal party, or to be prime minister?

Polling shows most Canadians think federal leaders should be able to speak French, though, understandably, it’s an opinion held less strongly in the West.

The ability to speak both official languages has long been a point of contention. Learning a second language is a fine thing. It expands the mind, helps us to learn about other cultures, and can even be useful in finding employment.

Millions who had to take French in high school, however, have had absolutely no use for it, and remember very little of it other than “Bonjour” and “J’entre dans la salle de classe.”

We get along just fine without it, so why should a prime minister have to be fluent?

Certainly, it’s helpful. It’s also often painful — try listening to Andrew Scheer or Stephen Harper or any number of other political leaders massacre the language and you’ll know what I mean.

It works in reverse, as well, by the way. How we squirmed every time Stephane Dion struggled with English.

So, yes, they should try but let’s keep in mind that only 18 per cent of Canadians can speak both French and English. Maybe it’s expecting too much of a federal leader to be one of the 18 per cent.

There are a lot more important things than that — such as what they think about pipelines, climate change and World War Three.

I’m Mel Rothenburger, merci beaucoup.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and newspaper editor. He writes five commentaries a week for CFJC Today, publishes the opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at

About Mel Rothenburger (8164 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

6 Comments on EDITORIAL – Why prime ministers shouldn’t have to be fluent in French

  1. David Poulin // February 4, 2020 at 10:33 AM // Reply

    I disagree with you Mel. The fact that most people in the predominantly English-speaking parts of Canada get along fine without speaking French is not the point. Over 6.9 million Canadians speak mostly French. That’s 20% of the Canadian population and 1.5 times the population of BC. We need a Prime Minister who can communicate effectively in both official languages.

  2. I disagree. Our country is bilingual. Speaking both official languages shows respect, inclusivity and understanding. It’s the least we should expect from our Prime Minister. Thankfully, it’s something that can be learned (admittedly, it takes effort).

    McKay’s poor French made the front page of both Le Journal de Montreal and Le Journal de Quebec (oddly, I place a higher value on their opinion than on Mr. Rothenburger’s). As McLean’s has pointed out, “MacKay had lots of time to learn passable French. That he didn’t do the work should raise some questions about his candidacy.”

  3. And are we eliminating capable people whose values we may share, supplanting them with mediocrities who happen to speak both languages? On a cost benefit analysis, where does the better choice lay?

  4. I kind of agree with your opinion on matters of language MR. There sure are much more important things to worry about and on those Mr. MacKay has also already shown some pretty stark ineptitude.

  5. It is the 21st Century. There is a desire for our leaders to be more “inclusive”. Maybe he would make some friends by delivering a short, prepared message in Punjabi, or Mandarin or Cantonese. Have a translator; other world leaders do.
    If he could be a man who is accepted as being trustworthy to Canada’s First Nations people, perhaps the media wouldn’t have such a feeding frenzy about his shortcoming with French fluency.

  6. Wayne Porter // February 4, 2020 at 4:26 AM // Reply

    …and we all know what happened to Stéphane Dion.
    8.5 million people call the Province of Quebec home – about 23% of the entire population of Canada. They’re probably not asking too much wanting a Prime Minister who can communicate with them in their language.

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