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The politics of language has been a key issue in Canada since the founding of the country in 1867. The choice of a party leader is greatly influenced by language proficiency, as is electability with the public. All Canadian prime ministers have spoken either French or English, some both, but only a few were fluently bilingual, and few have spoken any other language. All prime ministers have had one of English or French as their mother tongue with the possible exceptions of Sir John A. Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie, who may have spoken Scottish Gaelic or Lowland Scots as their first language.
The two official languages of the Parliament of Canada have been English and French since 1867 under the British North America Act; however, few members of parliament have historically been able to debate in their second language, and simultaneous translation was not introduced until the 1960s, making for two largely separate groups of legislators debating the same issues in two different languages. Furthermore the language of administration was almost solely English before the 1969 Official Languages Act. Speaking English has always been necessary to become prime minister as the majority of any parliamentary caucus large enough to form government has always been made up of unilingual Anglophones, not to mention the voting public. Not being able to speak French has not always been considered a sufficient handicap to prevent one from becoming prime minister, however. All Anglophone Canadian prime ministers have had ministers in their cabinet that represented the provincial interests of Quebec and spoke the French language, known as Quebec lieutenants. This tradition began before Confederation in the old United Province in Canada, which was usually jointly governed by two “co-premiers”, one from Canada West (Ontario) and one from Canada East (Quebec). It was extended into Confederation via Macdonald’s partnership with George-Étienne Cartier and has continued down to the present day.
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