English debate was a duty, not a choice

Par Beryl Wajsman le 1 octobre 2009

There has been much discussion of late about Louise Harel’s failure to participate in CTV’s English Montreal mayoralty debate. Her supporters have argued everything from her discomfort in English to the fact that it is not really all that important. They have said that debating is a politician’s personal choice, not a duty. In this case, we beg to differ.

What language a politician chooses to campaign in is certainly a matter of personal choice. If Madame Harel wants to ignore the 40 per cent of the City of Montreal that is non-francophone she is certainly within her rights. It’s her campaign and she takes the risk of alienating voters if she wants to. She is sending a clear signal on marginalization, but at least it is being done in the free battleground of ideas and she knows the downside. The debate, however, is another story.

If a candidate chooses not to do any debates, that is certainly a matter of choice as well. But to accept a debate in French and not in English is a clear signal of the politics of nullification and interposition. The segregation and marginalization of a substantial part of the city she seeks to govern.

Politicians don't have to try to balance all interests or particularities. Politics should be about principles not pandering. Tell voters to “follow me to the other side. It’s better over there.” So if a politician chooses not to debate at all, if for no other reason than they don’t want to, that is fine. There are other ways to respect the public and get your message out.

But Madame Harel is a very intelligent woman. She completely understands the profound alienation she will cause by not debating in English. If she is to debate in French, it becomes her duty to debate in English.

The question that needs to be examined by all voters is the legitimacy of the language issue being raised again. Montrealers have gone beyond the cultural wars and the big lies of the past 40 years. We have our own modus vivendi, our own realistic accommodation, on this island where more than 50 per cent of the people are non-francophone, and, as we wrote, in this city where some 40 percent are non-francophone.

This is a world class city. We are North America’s second largest inland port. A leader in avionics and bio-pharma. A college and university population greater than Boston’s on a per capita basis. We can compete and succeed. And for most, including most Francophones, there is the recognition that as much as they are loyal and protective of their language and culture, the workday language of the world is English.

Montrealers are a “can do” people. It is sometimes hard to remember but in a 10-year period we overhauled our highway system, built a world exhibition, constructed a metro and staged an Olympics. We can do better than the insecurity and xenophobia of the past several decades. Our mayor, though not needing to reflect the views of all on every issue, must reflect — and sell — the diversity of Montreal on the national, continental and international stages. For that, the Mayor must know English. This is not a job that can be done by proxy. And attracting business to this city is job one, make no mistake about that.

How is it that almost every candidate for federal office makes sure that they take an intensive course in French, yet the person who aspires to govern one of Canada’s largest English cities — yes English as well as French — makes a point of reflexively marginalizing the fact that though she knows the language, refuses to use it. That in itself sends a message. A message of benign neglect to understanding the hopes and aspirations of four-tenths of the people she seeks to govern. It is a message Montrealers should heed, and overwhelmingly reject.


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