Last Thursday was the first Leaders’ debate for this Québec electoral campaign. That debate was broadcast on Radio-Canada and Télé-Québec simultaneously. The next debate is scheduled for March 27th, a bit more than a week before the official polling day on April 7th. This year in Quebec, both debates will be presented in French. The question is: why not a debate in English?
There is no doubt that debates are important. For proof, look no further than the 1960 U.S. election. John F. Kennedy defeated his adversary Richard Nixon, during the first presidential debate to ever be broadcast on TV. Surely enough, it was instrumental to his electoral victory. During the debate, Kennedy showcased his youthful appearance, his charisma, and his ideas; all elements that led him to the White House.
As we all know, the Québécois are mostly French-speaking. According to the 2011 Canadian Census, French is 79.7 percent of the population’s first language. However, the English population is non-negligible. According to that same census, 10.7 percent of the people living in Québec (834,950 people) acknowledged English as their most used language at home. While that part of the population may know French, they are more comfortable in English. While ten percent is not a significant majority, it is without a doubt an important minority. It can, in fact, make or break an election for a party. More importantly, it can draw the line between a minority and majority government. Considering this, the option of holding at least one debate in English doesn’t sound too crazy. It’s happened before in Québec’s history, but not in a while.
In 2012, Pauline Marois declined an English debate. She claimed she wasn’t proficient enough in English to debate comfortably. For this year’s election campaign, the Anglophone media, as a consortium made of CJAD, CTV, CBC, Global and The Gazette) made the request again, but Marois responded by saying that, while she has made improvements, she still hasn’t mastered the language well enough to debate. The other parties claimed they were open to discussing the matter. It should however be noted that Madame Marois did not rule out an English debate forever, saying “Maybe in the long-term, maybe it will be possible.” Does this mean that if all candidates during an election were fluent in English it would be a possibility?
Some students have shared their opinion on the matter. For example, Polytechnique’s Rodrigue Beaini said that it “would be a good idea, so long as the rest of the provinces were open to a debate in French.” He however added that he thought it would be a great start if Québec took the initiative. Mr. Beaini will be happy to know that Ontario provacyl review did hold a French debate during its last election. The catch: two leaders weren’t fluent enough in French, so representatives for each party took part. Perhaps something similar could happen in Québec. Could a Jean-François Lisée or Pierre Karl Péladeau not potentially replace Madame Marois in an English debate against the other parties’ leaders?
Others have suggested a subtitled version of the debate, aired on the English networks. Karl Saleh, a student at HEC Montréal, claims that it would be “better than nothing, considering that Marois doesn’t speak good enough English.“ Catherine-Amélie Renaud, another Polytechnique student, brings an interesting perspective. She says rebroadcasting the debate with English subtitles would not only help spark the interest of the Anglophone population towards Quebec issues, it would also create a job opportunity for those in the field of French-English translation. Considering the possible employment openings, this option seems more attractive. Appealing to a bigger part of the population, all while creating jobs. Doesn’t that sound like a winning situation?
Amongst those who are pro-English debate, not everyone sees it as a critical issue. Joseph Elfassi, columnist for French-language website voir.ca, says he is “for holding a debate in English, while [he is] not necessarily concerned with that matter.” As for why, the journalist explains that “Quebec’s official language remains French and Anglophones as well as Allophones (people who aren’t fluent in French nor English) should be able to realize their democratic exercise in French.“ McGill University student Maeva Valente, a 1st year political science major, has a different opinion. She says that “even if French remains Quebec’s official language, we should have bilingual politicians and a bilingual society while trying to preserve both languages as much as we can so Quebec can be more present internationally.” For those reasons, she believes it would be a good thing for party candidates to have to express themselves in English during a debate. On that point, Mr. Elfassi agrees, as he said that an English debate would be for the better, so long as “no political leader [is] forced into it and no think tank or lobby [sees] the lack of an English debate as something negative.”
In the end, no one knows whether or not we will see an English language debate in a future Quebec election campaign. What is certain is that the Anglophone population, despite its seemingly small number, is an important part of the electorate for parties that seek widespread support. A government cannot really represent all the Québécois without the English population’s support. This goes to show, once again, that Québec’s unique language dialectic is what differentiates it from the rest of Canada.