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The O’Leary lesson: You can’t run this country without speaking French

Yves Boisvert

Yves Boisvert is a columnist for La Presse.

At first, the stillborn leadership campaign of Kevin O’Leary looks like one of the most spectacular flops in recent history.

But on second thought, Mr. O’Leary should be thanked for an invaluable contribution to Canadian politics, albeit unintended.

Before vanishing in his own smoke, the dragon made an important point: you can’t run to be prime minister if you are not bilingual. Even if you are a big TV personality.

There may be many other causes for Mr. O’Leary’s poor showing. He entered the race late; he has never held public office; he lives in Boston; his oversized ego may be at odds with the Canadian psyche; he a showed lack of judgment when he posted himself on Facebook at a shooting range in Florida on the day of a mass murder in a Quebec City mosque, etc.

The main reason he claimed for giving up, though, were his disastrous polling numbers in Quebec. Members of the Conservative Party in the province, and in other parts of the country, too, are not going to bet on a uni-lingual candidate to beat Justin Trudeau, no matter how successful he is in the business world.

Everybody noticed Mr. O’Leary joined the race the day after the French-language debate in January. At first, he said you can become Conservative leader even if you don’t speak one of the country’s two official languages.

Then, in a matter of days, he backtracked, promising to learn French. He went to Montreal and said a couple of sentences for “mes amis Québécois.” He said he spent time each day with a French teacher. And finally, he declared: “You can’t govern this country without speaking French and English.”

We don’t know how much his French has improved. But without question, he is a fast learner in politics. You can’t go back 50 years, when Lester B. Pearson had difficulty reading a French statement out loud. Well, you can, but you will probably never gain power. The political jurisprudence is abundantly clear.

Jack Layton stunned the political world when the NDP captured 59 seats – out of 75 – in Quebec. There is no way the party could have achieved that score if the late Mr. Layton had not been fluent in French, as he showed in a memorable interview on the popular talk-show Tout le monde en parle. At the opposite end, Preston Manning looked for a LaFontaine to be his French-speaking collaborator to win support in Quebec – to no avail. If you have no chance in the second-most populated province, party members in other provinces might not want you as leader. This is true in Ontario, for instance.

So let us be thankful for the catastrophic leadership campaign of Mr. O’Leary. May this entertaining journey serve as another piece in the case-law of language in Canadian politics. It will remain as a cautionary tale for those who think they can trump the laws of political gravity.

Merci, et bonne chance à Boston.