List of Prime Ministers of Canada by languages spoken
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The politics of language has been a key issue in Canada since the founding of the country in 1867. The choice of a party leader is greatly influenced by language proficiency, as is electability with the public. All Canadian prime ministers have spoken either French or English, some both, but only a few were fluently bilingual, and few have spoken any other language. All prime ministers have had one of English or French as their mother tongue with the possible exceptions of Sir John A. Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie, who may have spoken Scottish Gaelic or Lowland Scots as their first language.
The two official languages of the Parliament of Canada have been English and French since 1867 under the British North America Act; however, few members of parliament have historically been able to debate in their second language, and simultaneous translation was not introduced until the 1960s, making for two largely separate groups of legislators debating the same issues in two different languages. Furthermore the language of administration was almost solely English before the 1969 Official Languages Act. Speaking English has always been necessary to become prime minister as the majority of any parliamentary caucus large enough to form government has always been made up of unilingual Anglophones, not to mention the voting public. Not being able to speak French has not always been considered a sufficient handicap to prevent one from becoming prime minister, however. All Anglophone Canadian prime ministers have had ministers in their cabinet that represented the provincial interests of Quebec and spoke the French language, known as Quebec lieutenants. This tradition began before Confederation in the old United Province in Canada, which was usually jointly governed by two “co-premiers”, one from Canada West (Ontario) and one from Canada East (Quebec). It was extended into Confederation via Macdonald’s partnership with George-Étienne Cartier and has continued down to the present day.
Since rise of Quebec nationalism (following the Quiet Revolution [circa 1960-1966]), and especially the introduction of official bilingualism in the Official Languages Act in 1969 and its entrenchment in the Constitution of 1982, Canadian prime ministers (and party leaders as potential prime ministers) have been expected to be functionally bilingual by convention. An important factor in this trend has been the creation of the televised leaders' debates, which are held in separately in French and English. The parties feel the need to have a leader who can at least participate in both debates, even if they cannot win them both. The need to speak both languages is also seen as symbol of Canada’s identity as a linguistic duality, but also as a practical political matter, as the prime minister is seen as a leader of the federalist camp opposed to Quebec separatism and must be able to fight for the “hearts and minds” of Quebecers in their native language.
- 1 Description by prime minister
- 1.1 Sir John A. Macdonald
- 1.2 Alexander Mackenzie
- 1.3 Sir John Abbott
- 1.4 Sir Wilfrid Laurier
- 1.5 Sir Robert Borden
- 1.6 Mackenzie King
- 1.7 Louis St. Laurent
- 1.8 John Diefenbaker
- 1.9 Lester B. Pearson
- 1.10 Pierre Elliott Trudeau
- 1.11 Joe Clark
- 1.12 John Turner
- 1.13 Brian Mulroney
- 1.14 Kim Campbell
- 1.15 Jean Chrétien
- 1.16 Paul Martin
- 1.17 Stephen Harper
- 1.18 Justin Trudeau
- 2 Notable language traits of other party leaders
- 3 Comparison table
- 4 See also
- 5 References
Description by prime minister
Sir John A. Macdonald
In mid-nineteenth century Canada, people of Irish and Scottish descent (counted together) outnumbered both the English and French. Many of these spoke a Gaelic language, making Gaelic Canada's third most common language (if Irish and Scottish are counted together, as they often were at that time). Sir John A. Macdonald was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and some sources claim he spoke Gaelic as his mother tongue, as his parents were from the Scottish Highlands. Gaelic was popular with many of the Fathers of Confederation. He may have also spoken Glaswegian, a dialect of the Scots language. However, there were no schools teaching Gaelic in Canada at the time and it remained a low-prestige language of the home, not one of education, business, or politics. Macdonald spoke and wrote in English throughout his legal and political career. Macdonald is known to have studied Latin and French in childhood, but did not use French for political speeches.
Sir John Abbott
Abbott was the first native-born prime minister, the son of an Anglican priest, and likely spoke only English, though he was possibly knowledgeable of classical or biblical languages.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier
Laurier was a ninth-generation Canadian of French origin from rural Quebec. He was Canada’s first Francophone prime minister, and French was his first language, but he was also fluent in English (as a second language)
Sir Robert Borden
In his memoirs Borden says that because he could not afford to go to university, he read widely and tried to teach himself a variety of languages. He says of himself: “I succeeded in reading a good deal of Latin and Greek… a little German also, and some French”. Historian Michael Bliss describes him as “the only Anglophone Canadian prime minister before Brian Mulroney who could give a passable speech in French”.
King was born in Berlin, Ontario (a town with very high proportion of its residents being German or of German descent) to parents of Scottish extraction. He was Canada’s most educated prime minister, the only one to date with an earned Ph.D. (from Harvard University). King spoke German to some extent, but it is unclear how well. He attended schools in Berlin, Ontario where German was taught as a second language, but these classes were not universally attended even by the children who spoke German at home. King lived in Berlin, Germany for two months in 1900 while researching for his doctoral thesis. He read German books for his research. He lived with a German professor, who had a wife and two daughters, which must have given him exposure to the language during his brief stay. However, while in Germany, he wrote in his diary that he spent too much time with other Anglophones.
Louis St. Laurent
St. Laurent was, after Laurier, Canada’s second prime minister from Quebec. With his father being Francophone and his mother an Irish-Canadian, St. Laurent was raised to be fluently bilingual in both French and English.
Diefenbaker was born in Ontario to a Pennsylvania Dutch father from the United States and a Scottish mother. His government was the first to issue government cheques in French and introduce simultaneous translation into parliament. He spoke English only. On several occasions Diefenbaker attempted to speak some basic French in public speeches. On one occasion in 1961, Diefenbaker spoke a little bit of French at a welcoming ceremony for the American President John F. Kennedy during a state visit. Kennedy himself spoke a little French after being schooled by his bilingual wife. The president had not intended to address the audience in French, but having heard Diefenbaker's attempt, Kennedy decided to give it a try. Diefenbaker felt quite embarrassed to discover that Kennedy's French language skills, although basic, surpassed his own.
Lester B. Pearson
Pearson spoke very little French. In one incident in 1965, Pearson was giving a speech in Montreal in English when crowd began to shout “en français!” so Pearson switched to French, but the crowd continued to shout “en français!” Bliss describes him as “a man who could not conjugate the verb ‘avoir’”, but the one who led the country towards official bilingualism. Pearson thought of himself as likely to be the last unilingual prime minister of the country.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Trudeau was born to a French-Canadian father and a Scottish-Canadian mother and was raised fully bilingual from birth. He was also responsible for instituting official bilingualism and multiculturalism. He also spoke a passable Spanish, speaking to Fidel Castro in Spanish (during a somewhat controversial 1976 visit to Cuba) without the benefit of an interpreter.
Clark is from English-Canadian ancestry and was born in a unilingually English region of Alberta. He managed, however, to teach himself a passable level of French in his youth which was one of his main assets in winning the Progressive Conservative party leadership in 1976.
Turner was born in England, and speaks English as his native language. In the 1960s, Turner was described as bilingual. He has also been described as being "functionally fluent" in French, but not exceptionally so; professor Claude Denis of the University of Ottawa is quoted as saying that "Turner doesn't have an easy way with French".
Mulroney was born to parents of Irish ancestry in a rural, heavily Francophone region of Quebec. He studied law in English at Dalhousie University and in French at Laval University and was fluently bilingual by adulthood. His bilingualism helped him to win the Progressive Conservative Party leadership in 1983, when Joe Clark chose not to lend his support to John Crosbie, the other likely candidate, who is unilingual and was outspoken in his opinion that prime ministers did not need to know French. Clark preferred to see Mulroney as leader as he could help the party rebuild in Quebec.
Campbell is from Scottish ancestry and born in unilingual Anglophone British Columbia. Bliss says that on the campaign trail she was “dubiously bilingual” Campbell also studied Russian in University and can speak the language.
Chrétien is French Canadian and was raised and educated solely in French. He only began to learn English seriously in adulthood after arriving in Ottawa as a Liberal MP. He speaks somewhat broken and heavily accented English, but is understandable to most English speakers.
Martin is from a Franco-Ontarian family and is fluently bilingual.
Harper is from an Anglophone background, but has taught himself a passable level of French. Additionally, according to Conservative Party literature, he is said to be learning Spanish.
Trudeau, the current prime minister, is fluent in both English and French; but uses French as his native tongue. 
Notable language traits of other party leaders
The inability of their leaders to speak French, and therefore to win seats in Quebec, is often cited as one of the major handicaps to the success of the many smaller parties that have challenged the Conservatives and Liberals. The Prairie-based Progressives were entirely Anglophone. The Social Credit Party’s Alberta-based English wing and its Quebec-based French wing could not agree on leadership, leading to a party schism. The CCF and later NDP have traditionally not had many French-speaking leaders, and none who were Francophone by upbringing before Thomas Mulcair became leader in 2012. Preston Manning, of the Reform Party, tried to learn French once he was leader of the opposition, but was not able to debate in it. In contrast, the Francophone leaders of the Bloc Québécois, Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe, have both been able to speak English fluently.
Stockwell Day won the Canadian Alliance leadership partly because he spoke more French than any of the other main contenders at the time, despite Day's French still being somewhat weak. Late NDP leader Jack Layton, who was raised in an Anglophone region of Quebec and was married to Hong Kong-born Olivia Chow, spoke Cantonese in addition to English and French. Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, and Bill Graham speak English natively and are fluent in French. Green Party leader Elizabeth May speaks English natively and has only a passing familiarity with French, but did participate in the 2008 French-language leader's debate.
|1||John A. Macdonald||Fluent||Partial mastery||Native||Partial mastery|
|8||Robert Borden||Native||Partial mastery||Partial mastery||Partial mastery||Partial mastery|
|10||Mackenzie King||Native||Partial mastery|
|12||Louis St. Laurent||Fluent||Native|
|14||Lester B. Pearson||Native||Partial mastery|
|15||Pierre E. Trudeau||Fluent||Native|
|17||John Turner||Native||Partial mastery|
|19||Kim Campbell||Native||Partial mastery||Partial mastery|
-  "He mastered French and Latin by the time he was 12"
- Quoted in Bliss, 64
- Bliss, 65
- Bliss, 130
- Bliss, 228.
- Bliss, 235
- Bliss, 280
- The Long Run: The Political Rise of John Turner – CBC Archives. CBC News.
- Are language skills a political roadblock? CBC News, December 6, 2006
- Bliss, 279-282
- Bliss, 313
- "10 THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER". Conservative Party of Canada. Archived from the original on February 3, 2012. Retrieved 2 May 2012.
- Bliss, Michael. Right Honourable Men