Quebec monopoly on PM's job coming to end?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 23 13:23:03 UTC 2006

>>From the Toronto Star,

Quebec monopoly on PM's job coming to end?
Mar. 22, 2006. 01:00 AM

In his just-published book on the country's travails with its language
policy, my Toronto Star colleague Graham Fraser offers a blunt description
of the implicit bargain struck by non-francophone Canadians at the time of
the 1969 Official Languages Act. "We'll make public servants learn French,
we'll send our brightest children to French immersion so that they can run
the country in both languages and, until they've grown up, we'll let
Quebec lawyers run the country," he writes.

When he drafted the preface to Sorry, I Don't Speak French last fall,
Fraser like almost everyone else did not imagine that Quebecers were about
to play the key role in ending the four-decade dynasty of Quebec prime
ministers. The notion of a Conservative breakthrough in the province was
not on many radars. By the same token, he could not know that his book
would be launched just as the party that fostered the concept of
linguistic duality would be entering a succession battle that could see it
revisit the tenet that it is essential to be comfortable in French to be
the leader of the Liberal party.

The children of immersion have grown up but they have apparently not
become the rising stars of the federal Liberal party. A solid half of the
potential candidates to replace Paul Martin would not be able to sustain a
normal dinner conversation in French. They are all lining up for crash
French immersion courses these days. But unless those work unlikely
miracles, Liberals will have to decide whether, when it comes to their
leader, goodwill is an acceptable substitute for a working knowledge of

The Liberal language paradox is part of a pattern that concerns Fraser. He
is among those who feel that Canada, as we know it, needs to be governed
effectively in both languages if it is to survive. On that score, the core
political test of Canada's language adventure may well lie in the events
set in motion by the results of the last election. Until Jan. 23,
conventional wisdom had it (wrongly) that, given a choice, Quebecers would
never give the time of day to a federal leader who did not have roots in
the province.

Stephen Harper is the first prime minister from the rest of Canada to owe
his victory to Quebec voters since the advent of the Official Languages
Act. His success can only comfort the Liberals in the sense that they,
too, can look farther than their depleted Quebec ranks for their next
leader. The era when the province of Quebec had a virtual monopoly on the
job of prime minister is almost certainly over. In the next federal
election, the only leader from the province will likely be that of the
Bloc Qubcois.

This change in the federal culture is even more significant because it
comes at a time when a new referendum cycle could be about to get
underway. For the first time since the dawn of the sovereignty movement,
Canadians appear poised to rely on leadership from outside Quebec to keep
the federation together. That is either a token of Canadian confidence in
the skills of the bilingual pool of non-Quebec political talent, or a
symptom of a misguided sense that language no longer impacts on the
fortunes of federalism in Quebec.

It is true that the presence of prime ministers from Quebec did not
prevent two referendums from taking place or stop Canada from coming
precariously close to losing the last one. But it is also true that Pierre
Trudeau and Jean Chretien's capacity to speak directly to francophone
Quebecers ultimately tipped the balance in favour of federalism. Time will
also tell whether the arrival to power on Parliament Hill of bilingual
leadership from the rest of Canada signals the coming of age of the
bargain struck almost 40 years ago or the inexorable disengagement of
Quebec from federal institutions.

Chantal Hebert's national affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and
Friday. chebert at

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