It was a train wreck, but we all knew it would be.
A few days after declining to participate in an English-language debate hosted by CTV, Louise Harel willingly subjected herself to a one-hour interview on CJAD on Saturday afternoon.
CJAD hasn't posted audio of it online, but I recorded it and compiled the best of its unquotable moments. You can listen to it here: Louise Harel on CJAD (edited, MP3)
Her English wasn't just bad, it was atrocious. During the 30 minutes of interview, I counted a total of 19 times that host Anne Lagacé-Dowson suggested words that Harel was struggling to find. (In one case, it was the word "expensive".) At one point, Harel gave up entirely and gave an answer in French for the host to translate.
Perhaps Harel and her handlers never listened to the station, but I can think of no worse platform for a unilingual francophone ex-PQ minister and municipal merger advocate than the last great bastion of angryphonism.
It's noteworthy that Harel chose to come on the Saturday afternoon show of Lagacé-Dowson, the former CBC radio host who left the Corp to unsuccessfully bid for a seat in the House of Commons for the NDP. (She's now the permanent host 1-4pm on Saturdays.) Normally, high-profile guests sit with Tommy Schnurmacher on weekday mornings or Ric Peterson during the drive-home hours.
Stories about Harel's genuine but failed attempt to reach out to anglos appear in The Gazette and on CJAD's website. CTV's cameras were also in the studio. French media seems to have ignored the gesture entirely. The Gazette has some fun at Harel's expense, but even that is downright laudatory compared to some of the comments made by CJAD listeners who called in. One said she "exemplified hatred for the English-speaking community" and was "trying to destroy our community," while another used the word "racist" in describing PQ language policy. No wonder Harel said she was "afraid to speak in English" for fear of committing a major political faux pas and being branded something worse than a green-skinned witch.
All three stories about the discussion also mention the fact that she was 25 minutes late to the interview. (Her explanation was that she was giving another interview to a community radio station and couldn't get to the studio on time.) It was 1:21pm by my watch when she got in the studio, and she was at the microphone a minute later. She missed about 11 minutes of actual talk time, during which Lagacé-Dowson filled otherwise dead air with a biography of the Vision Montreal leader and took a couple of calls. Cutting out the ads, traffic and news breaks, Lagacé-Dowson and Harel talked for 30 minutes after she finally arrived.
I'm not quite sure why Harel decided to be interviewed on CJAD. Perhaps it was to prove a point that she doesn't hate anglophones. Perhaps it was just to get it over with. Or perhaps she lost a bet.
But listening to the interview, it becomes clear why Harel chose not to participate in an anglo television debate. She has literally nothing to gain from such an embarrassment. Her approval among anglophones according to the latest La Presse poll is an astonishingly low 6%, way below Gérald Tremblay and Richard Bergeron. I think George W. Bush has better support from anglo Montrealers. Stumbling through severe language difficulties to give un-nuanced explanations of why she supports policies that anglophones are most opposed to is an exercise in futility. "For Harel to try to debate in a language she doesn't really speak would have been an excruciating waste of time for both her and any listener who isn't a masochist," says Gazette columnist Don Macpherson.
CTV offered simultaneous translation, which would have given us something similar to what we had in the 1997 French leaders' debate where Preston Manning spoke in English to a French audience. That might have been easier for everyone involved, but it's easier still to simply write off a segment of the population you have no chance of winning anyway. The BQ and PQ don't campaign for anglo votes, so why should Harel?
Irrelevant? I think not
I don't think that mastery of the English language should be a requirement for being mayor of Montreal. The city has had mayors in the past whose English skills have been sorely lacking, and so far no civil wars have erupted. Richard Bergeron's English isn't all that much better.
But there's this talking point circulating among Harel supporters (and militant sovereignists) that the ability to speak English is completely irrelevant to the job of mayor.
Sorry, but it's not. No matter what the law or the city's constitution says, Montreal is a bilingual city. The national anthem at Canadiens games is sung in two languages, we pay for our shish taouk with bilingual money, and panhandlers start off their begging with "anglais/français?"
Harel herself is the first to admit that this lack of skill is a strike against her. The job of mayor isn't simply about creating legislation and voting in city hall meetings, it's about being a leader, about representing Montreal on the national and international stage, and (for better or for worse) about giving speeches, cutting ribbons and writing those letters you see on Page 2 of municipal newsletters and festival programs. And like it or not, these things require the use of English.
This same irrelevance argument is made about Harel's views on Quebec sovereignty. Even asking the question is considered "totally out of line." Since when is someone's political views irrelevant to politics? Sure, Montreal's mayor doesn't have the power to make a unilateral declaration of independence, but identity politics have defined political discourse here for decades, and there are plenty of related issues (language, for example) that do have an impact at the municipal level. Playing this not-my-jurisdiction game seems ludicrous to me. If Stephen Harper were asked a question about his views on health care or education during a campaign, would those too be considered "totally out of line" because those things are provincial jurisdiction? Of course not.
I get the point: We know she's a sovereignist, we know she can't speak English very well, and we know she brought in those forced municipal mergers (which, despite the stereotype, didn't just piss off anglophones in Montreal). We should be debating the "issues" instead. Looking forward, you know.
But we can't. Because over a week into the campaign, Vision Montreal hasn't released its platform yet. Neither has Tremblay's Union Montreal, although one can extrapolate their policies from the past eight years of governance.
And because Vision Montreal is a shell of a party that really has nothing to define itself by other than its revolving-door leadership post, we have to wait until a platfom is released to debate the issues. (Though apparently Harel and Trembaly don't - they already had a debate, with Jean-Luc Mongrain on LCN, before releasing any platforms.)
If Harel wants to move on and keep the momentum she's built up, and maybe even attract a few anglo votes on the issues that really matter, that platform needs to be released soon. And it better have some good ideas.