Zolf*Larry - When I was a little boy and riding a streetcar in Winnipeg with my mother, we would converse in Yiddish, that being our mother tongue. Quite often an irate Anglo would interrupt us and say : "You’re in Canada now, ma’am. Speak white !"
My mother pretended she did not understand what the Anglo gentleman meant but she fell silent nevertheless. When the man left the streetcar, I asked my mother what he meant by speaking white. "My son," my mother said, "as Canadians we should speak English."
This kind of scolding would also occur in Eaton’s department store in Montreal. There francophone Quebecers were sometimes told by Eaton’s anglophone clerks to speak white, English that is, when making their purchases.
My father spoke Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish and Hebrew. But his fierce desire to be a Canadian made him teach himself a powerful if broken English. His broken English, mind you, did not stop him from arguing with Anglo racists and bigots in Winnipeg public parks.
My mother spoke the barest of English. If the Salvation Army came to the door, my mother thought they were the czarist police out to deport her. My mother would then hide under her bed.
My older sisters and brother spoke only in English to me. I was fluently bilingual in Yiddish and English at the age of two.
All this is by way of saying that when I hear Stéphane Dion mangle the English language I want to say to him, speak white, Stéphane.
This may be politically incorrect of me. I may be accused of francophone bashing or worse, but I find Dion’s crippling lack of English skills a complete mystery and a really appalling situation for the Liberals.
Earlier, I wrote off Dion as a serious candidate for the Liberal leadership because his English was so bad. In that column I pointed out that Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Louis St. Laurent and Pierre Trudeau all spoke wonderful English and made memorable speeches in that tongue during election campaigns.
All of them garnered majority governments. Laurier had four of them. All three of these men communicated with English-speaking Canada, with its Anglos and its ethnic groups.
The role model not followed
I was not alone in ruling out Dion’s chances of becoming leader because of his English problems. During the Liberal leadership race I had a private chat in Toronto with Jean Chrétien. Chrétien was supporting Bob Rae for leader, partly because of John Rae, Chrétien’s old executive assistant and Bob’s brother.
We got to talking about Dion’s very poor English. Chrétien agreed with my column and thought that Dion’s lack of English would rule him out for the top job.
Chrétien, after all, created Dion, and Dion did wonders for him in French only. Chrétien is also a role model that Dion has not followed.
In 1962, Chrétien was first elected to the House of Commons. He could not speak a word of English. Neither could his wife Aline.
Chrétien was ambitious and knew he had to learn English and right away or he’d never be able to go anywhere in the Liberal party.
Chrétien found two mentors who spoke English very well. They were the legendary journalist Doug Fisher and the legendary politician Mitchell Sharp, Lester Pearson’s minister of finance.
Fisher and Sharp took Chrétien under their wing. They spoke to him only in English. Sharp also made Chrétien his parliamentary secretary.
Both Sharp and Fisher taught Chrétien how to play politics in the anglophone world and how to speak English. Sharp also taught Chrétien how Bay Street and Canadian business worked. Sharp taught his protegé so well that Chrétien became Canada’s first francophone finance minister.
By the time Fisher and Sharp had finished with Chrétien’s total immersion into the Anglo world, Chrétien was ready to be the Liberal leader.
Worse than Dief ?
Now, Stéphane Dion is failing badly in the polls and it is in English Canada where Dion is taking a beating. Peter Newman has already written Dion’s leadership off and so have the polls.
Newman backed Ignatieff because he saw Dion as a fierce, stubborn, unilingual francophone who in over 10 years in federal office did not save the environment nor bother to learn the English language.
Dion’s cavalier attitude to learning English was certainly not the attitude of the so-called three wise men, Gérard Pelletier, Jean Marchand and Trudeau who came to Ottawa in 1965.
Interestingly enough, Person’s first choice for successor was Marchand but the fiery former union leader turned down the offer because he said his English was not good enough ; he suggested Trudeau instead. I interviewed Marchand as a reporter on Parliament Hill many times and his English was far, far better than Dion’s is today.
I’m prepared to say that Dion’s English is far worse than Pearson’s French, even John Diefenbaker’s. Dief tried manfully to speak French and he did carry Quebec in 1958. Pearson, despite bad French, carried Quebec in 1963.
Both men spoke enough French to tell Quebecers they cared about their language and culture. Dief’s and Pearson’s limited French came from their big, big hearts.
Dion’s terrible, limited English seems to come from an old-fashioned European tour guide. It is a technocratic, halting English at best. It means that Dion cannot reach Ontarians, Maritimers, Westerners or any Canadians who are unilingually English.
In my opinion Dion must learn to speak white and the sooner the better. If Harper as a prairie boy from Toronto could learn to speak French, Dion can learn to speak English.
If not, in the English election TV debates Dion will find himself struggling to keep up with Harper, Jack Layton, the Green’s Elizabeth May and even the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe.
Dion needs advice on speaking white. Graham Fraser, the famous journalist and bilingualism commissioner, could put Dion on a strict English immersion course. Chrétien could also help Dion out with his English problem.
Both can certainly tell him the dangers of being a national political leader who cannot speak to Anglos.
LARRY ZOLF : POLITICS