Hudak admits he doesn’t speak French, but will try to learn if elected premier

OTTAWA – Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak says he’s ready to deliver a “message of change” to voters across Ontario – just not in French.

The Tory leader admits he doesn’t speak the language, but will make “every effort” to learn French if he becomes premier on Oct. 6.

“I wish I could stand before you today and say I speak French. I don’t,” he said Thursday during a campaign stop in Ottawa.

“If I have the opportunity and the time ahead, I’ll improve my language skills.”

Hudak said he has attracted candidates who are francophone and fluently bilingual, such as Marilissa Gosselin in the eastern Ontario riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell.

The Tory platform is also available in French and about 15 other languages, he said.

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That’s not good enough, said Liberal party president Yasir Naqvi, who is running for re-election in Ottawa.

“This is a bilingual province,” he said. “I come from eastern Ontario which has a huge population. It is an important aspect.”

Naqvi, who immigrated to Canada from Pakistan, said he is taking French lessons twice a week to improve his language skills, which he described as “intermediate level” French.

“You have to make time and you have to learn the language because that’s a very important constituency, and we need to make sure that we are able to communicate with them in their language,” he said.

Party officials confirmed that nine of their 107 candidates are bilingual. But they say there are others who can speak some French or foreign languages, such as Italian and Portuguese.

There are more than 582,000 francophones in Ontario – about five per cent of the total population of 13 million.

Three of the last five premiers spoke French, but none was a Conservative. Mike Harris and Ernie Eves didn’t speak the language, while former NDP premier Bob Rae and Liberal premier David Peterson did.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose mother is francophone, also speaks French, although he sometimes needs help from French-speaking reporters when responding to a question in his second language.

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NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who is calling for more leadership debates leading up to the vote, said she probably wouldn’t do one in French.

“As you can tell it needs a little bit of work and as soon as this campaign is over, if I have the honour of being re-elected in my own riding, I’ll certainly be back to my French lessons, they’re extremely important to me,” she said in Sudbury, Ont.

The Tories are promising to cut government spending by two per cent if elected – except for health and education. But Hudak won’t say whether he would also spare the budgets for the province’s French services or French language commissioner.

A PC government will abide by Ontario’s French Language Services Act, he said.

“We’ll follow the act to make sure that services are available where the demand is, just as the act says,” Hudak added.

“I think all of us have an obligation to try to find two cents on every dollar that we spend, to cut out the waste, the duplication, too much administration in the system, not enough on front-line services.”