Does the next Conservative leader need to be bilingual?

Federal Conservative leadership candidates roasted on social media over struggles speaking French
WATCH ABOVE: Federal Conservative leadership candidates roasted on social media over struggles speaking French.

It was the race’s first officially bilingual debate, and many of the 14 federal Conservative leadership contenders bumbled through it.

The long, long line of lecterns on stage in Moncton, N.B Tuesday night was populated mostly by anglophone members of the Conservative Party, many who exhibited difficulty during French portions of the debate.

Erin O’Toole, Kellie Leitch, Lisa Raitt, Andrew Scheer and Brad Trost, to name but a few of the candidates, took turns stumbling, stuttering and mumbling their way through French answers, with some opting to pepper their remarks with English words and phrases.

READ MORE: Tory leadership hopefuls square off in bilingual debate in Moncton

Some candidates did well – Maxime Bernier and Steven Blaney, the francophones from Quebec, obviously shone in their native language, and former diplomat Chris Alexander could certainly hold his own.

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Of course, the struggles of the others didn’t go unnoticed on social media.

Conservative MPs have said they want their new leader to be able to speak French — but opinions on how fluent that person must be, and whether they should be upon election or a few years down the road are less clear.

Over time, Canadians have come to expect their prime minister to be able to conduct themselves well in both official languages.

READ MORE: Conservative leadership hopefuls talk immigration, trade and Trump at first debate 

A Nielsen survey conducted for the Official Languages Commissioner found 86 per cent of Canadians agree the prime minister should be bilingual. Shortly after releasing that poll in March, the commissioner said in a speech that bilingualism “has become an unwritten rule of public life” and suggested the notion of proficiency in French and English has become “a critical qualification for political leadership.”

In a TV appearance Tuesday night, former prime minister (and Quebec-born) Brian Mulroney said it’s “helpful” for a national political leader to be able to communicate with French-speaking citizens in their language.

“I sometimes half facetiously used to say ‘what do you think the chances would be in a general election campaign if the new leader of the Conservative Party went into Ontario and he couldn’t speak English? I think he’d be rather handicapped,” Mulroney said in a CBC interview.

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Former NDP leader Jack Layton was an anglophone born and raised in Quebec, but often spoke in colloquialisms and a familiar accent — traits that arguably ingratiated him to the province’s voters.

Karl Bélanger, who acted as Layton’s senior press secretary and principal secretary to Quebec, helped the leader polish his French.

“Accent is what it is,” Bélanger said Wednesday, about what a French-Canadian identifies with. “With Layton, we wanted to improve his vocabulary and delivery.”

Respect is at the root of speaking both languages, Bélanger said; respect for French Canadian voters and for the country’s two official languages.

Having a base understanding of the language, Bélanger said, was key to molding Layton’s second-language skills into something French Canadians understood, identified with and appreciated.

“Starting from scratch, not being able to read lines on a paper in front of you, it will be very difficult to learn quickly,” he said.

“My advice to any politician is to learn French early. Even though you may not have the ambition [to become party leader or prime minister] now, you don’t know where you’ll be in five, 10 or 20 years.”