Colby Cosh explains why unilingual Conservative party leadership hopefuls should just plunge right into those French lessons already:
There is clamour in the press right now about the “rule” that a federal Conservative party leader ought to be able to speak in both official languages. I could probably stop this column after the following statement: It’s not a rule. It’s just a very strong precondition for electoral success. Calling it a rule implies that there is some sense in arguing about the ethicality or the practicality of the principle — that it is an idea someone has the power to revoke after discussion of its philosophical merits. It invites verbal volleying over whether Canada is essentially a bilingual country, whether it is proper to exclude qualified unilingual leaders from the Prime Minister’s Office, etc., etc.
You get the normative questions mixed up with the factual ones awfully quickly. You start discussing whether a bilingualism requirement is right or wrong, just or unjust; and political reality stands off to the side, remaining intractable, utterly insensitive to the feelings of ambitious monoglots and their media advocates.
The various Conservative parties have proven that they can, very occasionally, win elections without Quebec. But francophone Canada is just a little bigger than Quebec, and a unilingual leader would now be compromised in campaigning and sidelined in television debate. If he had promised to learn French, which seems to be the hope of Conservative leadership candidates who don’t speak it well, he would be challenged on his skills every week for the remainder of his career. Every speech would be a tiny test, its contents overlooked.
And he would be excruciatingly vulnerable to the good faith and sense of his francophone MPs. When you take all the added challenges for a unilingual party leader into account, it might be easier to go ahead and just learn the damned language already. (One thing worth remembering is that Quebec’s representation in this Conservative leadership race, and probably in future ones, is proportional to its House of Commons delegation. It may be strategically possible to win a general election as a leader without Quebec, but you do have to win the leadership first.)
It was still feasible for unilingual candidates to win the Conservative leadership (back when they were the “Progressive Conservative” party) into the 1970s, but in practical terms it was nearly impossible to win a general election without substantial support from Quebec (which would not be given to a monolingual leader). At this late stage, I read any Conservative leadership hopeful who does not speak both official languages to be angling for a “Kingmaker” or power broker role rather than expecting to actually win.