Much is made of the Canadian Prime Minister: he’s a repeatedly-avowed feminist; he’s appointed a gender-balanced cabinet with experts occupying each role; he’s able to explain quantam computing at the drop of a hat (although the reality of this last skill has been queried). Justin Trudeau is also a fluent French speaker who was educated in a French-medium school in Montreal. In officially bilingual Canada, this is more than merely a useful skill; almost one third of Canadians (almost 10 million people) self-identify as French speakers, of whom 7.3 million state that French is their first language.
Not for the first time, Twitter becomes a site of contestation within language politics, although – of course – Prime Minister Trudeau’s behaviour is impeccable; that is, if you think that an official Twitter account should adhere scrupulously to the law of the land. The extent to which one’s public and private lives intertwine on Twitter is something that has posed some challenges for some in the limelight. This is in addition to those who tweet messages to the entire Internet, but then rapidly seek to delete their mistake.
During the final years of the Harper administration, a language scuffle broke out between two former ministers from Canada’s Conservative government and the country’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser. In early 2015, Fraser found that the two ministers violated the law on official languages, with Foreign Affairs minister John Baird tweeting 181 times in English alone (out of a total of 202 tweets). The ministers and their officials rejected the Commissioner’s findings, but Trudeau’s Liberal Party responded by issuing a code of conduct, including advice on social media usage. The inevitable next question is to ask what Canada’s golden boy and his cabinet are doing in practice.
The starting point for any discussion of politician’s tweets is an acknowledgement that they might not be the authors of their own 140-character message; Donald Trump, for example, is not always the author of his own messages to the world. In some cases, an appointed official, therefore, might be writing the tweets. Nevertheless, there is some level of ownership of the tweets by the person named on the account. A cursory glance at the Twitter feed of Prime Minister Trudeau shows his even-handed approach to official bilingualism, with tweets scrupulously written in French and English – occasionally in the same tweet, but more usually in two subsequent tweets. However, Trudeau does tweet only in English in replies to a tweet in English – as evidenced by his diplomatic politeness towards the New Zealand High Commissioner to Canada. Trudeau also retweets English-language messages without providing a translation.
Stéphane Dion, who prompted the investigation into the use of French on social media by Conservative ministers, is now in government himself, and opts for separate Twitter accounts (one in English, one in French) for his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as an account for his role as an MP, which is – naturally – in two languages. By comparison, Scott Brison – President of the Treasury Board (and whose predecessor was challenged by Dion over inconsistent language use on Twitter) – blurs the boundary in his account by tweeting in two languages for official business but tweeting in English or in French alone in a personal capacity.
So we return to a familiar question: does this really matter? Well, in terms of communication, not much is going to be lost by a politician who tweets in English but not in French. The significance is in the symbolism. As is so often the case, the message is not quite as important as the medium, and the absence of French-language tweets in a Canadian minister’s Twitter feed says more – some argue – about a politician’s attitude towards bilingualism in Canada, towards the reach of Federal law, towards Francophone citizens. Comments posted news stories about this on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation‘s website highlight how for some, this is a non-issue, a waste of time and of money. For others, this is very important indeed, and is about respect for a numerical minority whose language rights should be respected. As is often the case, social media is the forum in which lively language debates play out.