Language Politics in Canada

« previous post | next post »

We've just had a national election here in Canada, the overall result of which is that the Conservatives, who had formed a minority government, finally secured a majority. Another interesting result was the collapse of the Bloc Québécois, the Québec separatist party, which lost most of its seats to the New Democrats, the social democratic party, which now forms the Official Opposition. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, who resigned as a result of his party's poor performance, went into the election thinking that language was still an issue. Yesterday's Toronto Globe and Mail gave a brief quotation from each party leader on the front page. Duceppe's was: "How can we accept putting our confidence in people who don't even speak our language?".

One can only imagine that he, like many others, was stunned by the result in the Québec riding of Berthier–Maskinongé, where the NDP ran a young woman, Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who lives 400km from the riding, went to Las Vegas for a vacation at the peak of the campaign, and for practical purposes does not speak French. She won, with a margin of 10 percentage points over the runner up, the incumbent Bloc candidate. We're not in Kansas anymore…


  1. Peter G. Howland said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 4:03 am

    There is no way for me to elegantly disguise my ignorance and I can only hope that other LL readers will not be snorting with laughter at my lack of linguistic sophistication, but in your phrases "the Quebec riding of" and "lives 400km from the riding", what does the word "riding" mean in this context? I can think of no other recourse but to come right out and ask. (*grimaces with embarassment*)

  2. maidhc said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 4:05 am

    No one has commented yet? What happened to the Grits is rather like what happened to the PCs in 1993, although not quite as drastic. Now both of the original 1867 parties have been forced to contemplate their essence.

    The triumph of the NDP in Quebec is a major change.

    Harper got his majority, but I sense that it is an unstable victory. Those who are against him are REALLY against him. The spotlight will be on Layton now–will he be up to it?

    I must confess that I have some bias. I went to the same high school as Ignatieff and my mother worked on some of his television shows, and both of us have some reservations about him. But if I had the same personal contact with other candidates, I suppose I might have some further opinions about them too.

    As the supposed Chinese proverb that no Chinese people have ever heard of says, "Interesting times" are in store for Canadians.

    Given the major changes, I am looking forward to the re-emergence of Social Credit.

  3. maidhc said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 4:08 am

    Peter G. Howland: "Riding" is the Canadian term for what might be generally described as "electoral district".

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 4:31 am

    The origin of the term riding is also worth a comment, assuming recreational etymology has some place on Language Log. It goes back to the division of Yorkshire into three sections, which would probably be called "thirdings" if the word had survived unmodified. But because they were the North, East, and South "thirdings", some kind of phonetic simplification affected the initial th sound after the final t or th of North, East and South, and we're left with the North Riding, East Riding, and South Riding (or we were left with them until the English counties were restructured a few decades ago). The exact details of the pronunciation change are not clear, but the basic meaning of "third" is not in doubt. I don't know how the term got entrenched in political terminology in Canada but not anywhere else in the English-speaking world.

    [(myl) According to the Wikipedia entry, the history of this eggcorn is as follows:

    The word riding is descended from late Old English *þriðing or *þriding (recorded only in Latin contexts or forms, e.g., trehing, treding, trithing, with Latin initial t here representing the Old English letter thorn). It came into Old English as a loanword from Old Norse þriðjungr, meaning a third part (especially of a county), cf. farthing. The modern form riding was the result of initial th being absorbed in the final th or t of the words north, south, east and west, by which it was normally preceded.

    The OED says:

    Originally a variant of trithing n. with assimilation and loss of the initial consonant in collocations with the adjectives east, west, north, south, probably reinforced by folk-etymological association with riding n.1 Compare post-classical Latin ridingum (a1564 in a British source).


  5. Breffni said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 5:11 am

    I don't know how the term got entrenched in political terminology in Canada but not anywhere else in the English-speaking world.

    The administrative divisions of County Tipperary (Ireland) were until recently called the North and South Ridings.

  6. Peter G. Howland said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 5:11 am

    Riding (off into the sunset)

    @maidhc – Thanks for the clue. Armed with that, I was able to access the comprehensive wikipedia write-up on Canadian Electoral Districts which clarified that the term is based on an archaic British term denoting a subdivision of a county. Interesting that the “riding” concept is geographically-based and that there are still issues regarding its equitability in terms of democratic representation by population.

    @Bob Ladd – True or not, your etymological explanation of phonetic morphing in which the /th/ was dropped from “thirding” to create “riding” sure beats the hell out of my moment of fantasy in which I imagined that the term defined the distance a horseback courier could “ride” in a specified period of time in order to collect/distribute election results. (!)

    I think we can mosey on down the trail now.

  7. Mark Gould said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 5:44 am

    @Bob Ladd: South Riding was a fictional construct. Winifred Holtby conjured it into existence. The three Ridings of Yorkshire are The East Riding, West Riding and North Riding.

  8. jfruh said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 7:50 am

    When you say that Ms. Brosseau "for practical purposes does not speak French," what does that mean precisely in a Canadian context? I was watching a streamed press conference a couple of years back during some Canadian political crisis (the proroguing parliament thing?) and was watching Harper talk in what struck me as a very middle-(North) American farm boy accent; then one of the reporters asked him a question in French, and he replied in the same language. His accent was pretty terrible (I don't speak French, and I could tell that) and he spoke pretty slowly, but everyone seemed to understand him. Is Brosseau's French worse than Harper's?

  9. Michael said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    @jfruh Joe, it's being reported that she was unable to answer any questions when asked to participate in a Francophone radio show, so if that is true then, yes, it would be worse than Harper's. Not sure how true that is or not. But anyway, it's not fair to compare her to Harper; she represents a riding that is very heavily Francophone, so presumably she can't comfortably talk to her own constituents, which is perhaps more problematic.

  10. F.L. Feimo said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    As an ex-Montrealer and ex-Quebecer who could never be considered Québécoise, it is refreshing to see that we have moved beyond the issue of language, as Canada is no longer defined by only English or French.

  11. language hat said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 9:59 am

    presumably she can't comfortably talk to her own constituents, which is perhaps more problematic.

    But… but… then how did she get elected? Ah well, I don't understand politics. The etymology of riding is more my speed.

  12. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    @language hat Easy. MASSIVE vote shift from the Bloc to the NPD across the province. The Bloc got basically swept under the carpet.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    "Presumably can't comfortably talk to her own constituents" assumes that Quebecois by and large are unable to communicate effectively in English. Is that actually the case? For what percentage of the adult population, either provincewide or in this particular riding? I can certainly understand a cultural/political *preference,* perhaps a very very strong one, to have an MP who could communicate smoothly in French. But that's not the same issue.

    Non-linguistically, it is very weird from a U.S. perspective to have a candidate who does not actually reside in her "riding," but that's a very common practice in the U.K. and I expect that's where they got it from. Do British or Canadian English even have a pejorative word parallel to AmE "carpetbagger"?

  14. Robert S. Porter said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    According to census data the riding of Berthier – Maskinongé has a bilingual (officially "knowledge of English and French") population of only 22%. Thus about 78% of the riding is French only. So it's a significant issue, or so one would have thought.

  15. xyzzyva said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    J. W. Brewer,
    In the US, it's essentially illegal to run in a district you don't reside in (it's a state matter, but states are pretty consistent on this). Thus you get the farce of the carpetbagger, six months before an election buying a house and setting up shop.

    There are other weird cases, like when an incumbent spends enough time in the capitol that they can hardly be considered resident in their own district (especially if they happen to sell their house).

    I've never understood this kind of legal constraint, since the electorate is always free to not elect someone with insufficient ties to the district.

  16. John Roth said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 12:36 pm


    While I can't verify it, I've been told that there was a situation in England during pre-revolutionary times where maintaining an M.P. was just too expensive for some districts, so they had to have someone from out of district with the personal wealth to maintain a residence in London and attend Parliament (it wasn't cheap.) A number of Colonial interests (Jamaica is what I was told) essentially bought M.P.s and had legislation passed that locked the American colonies out of some rather lucrative trades.

    This isn't the only weird custom in the U.S. that traces back to rather specific abuses from that time period.

  17. marie-lucie said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    The constitutional requirement that the president of the United States should be a "natural-born citizen" and have resided in the US for a number of years may be another version of the same concern, in order to prevent a visiting British or European aristocrat from becoming president and reinstituting a thinly-disguised form of colonial dependence.

  18. Brett said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    @xyzzyva: For federal congressional elections, there is no requirement that candidates live in the districts they represent. I know this, because I was once angry to be represented by a man who did not reside in my congressional district (and, from having interacted with him personally, I felt he was an ass).

    The reason derives from the fact that congressional districts as we now know them were not universally established until 1842. In many states, the representatives were elected the same way senators are now, by the population of the entire state. (At the same time, senators were elected by the state legislature.) Congress eventually mandated the current system of districted representation, but it could not change the legal requirements for candidates, since those are spelled out explicitly in the constitution: The candidate must be 25 years old, a citizen for 7 years, and a resident of the state they will represent. To add additional qualifications for office would require a constitutional change.

    @marie-lucie: That the president be natural-born (or a citizen at the time of the United States of America's founding) was quite certainly justified as a way to prevent European royals from taking over. I think that's even stated in The Federalist somewhere.

  19. Bill Poser said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    In Canada, as in some other parliamentary systems, a candidate need not be a resident of the electoral district. Non-resident candidates are described as being "parachuted in". One situation in which this is done is when someone who does not hold a seat becomes leader of the governing party and needs to obtain one quickly. The technique is to get the current holder of a safe seat to resign and parachute in the party leader as a candidate in the resulting by-election. This will soon happen here in BC: Gordon Campbell, the long-time Liberal premier, resigned and Christy Clark was elected leader of the provincial Liberal party, thereby becoming Premier. However, she is not currently a Member of the Legislative Assembly and so cannot participate in debates. Since Campbell's riding, Vancouver-Point Grey, is considered a safe Liberal seat, Campbell has resigned and Clark will run for and presumably obtain his seat in the legislature.

    Another situation in which a candidate is parachuted in is when it looks like there is a good chance of getting a seat away from the incumbent party but the local candidate doesn't seem strong enough, so the party inserts a candidate perceived as stronger. Then there is the opposite situation, in which a riding is perceived as hopeless, so nobody local is really interested. The party will sometimes use this as an opportunity for some up-and-coming youngster to get experience. In the riding just to the south of mine, which was certain to go to the incumbent Conservative, the Liberals parachuted in a university student.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    In terms of the various reasons for "parachuting" adduced by Dr. Poser, I see that a few days before the election the Albertan pundit Colby Cosh said at the MacLeans website that "I think it is natural to suppose that the NDP will disappoint [as compared to its skyrocketing numbers in the opinion polls] in Quebec, but match or exceed its not-quite-so-absurd polling numbers in Ontario, where the party has a real organization and where most of its candidates are not missing or imaginary or celebrating their 14th birthdays on the Moon." One can perhaps infer from this that NDP candidates in certain Quebec ridings, perhaps including Ms. Brosseau, were recruited at a time when the NDP was not thought to have any real chance of victory in the particular riding regardless of the candidate, such that a different and more credibly Francophone candidate could and would have been recruited had the dynamics of the election been foreseen in advance. (I don't know how common it is for Canadians to have "French-sounding" surnames but "English-sounding" given names, as seems to be the case with Ms. Brousseau, nor what ethnocultural/linguistic inferences would be drawn from such a name on the ballot by those voters who had not been paying close attention during the campaign.)

  21. Mark Etherton said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    @John Roth

    I am not sure what is meant by 'pre-revolutionary', but British MPs received no salary until 1911. This meant that unless they had private means they had to be funded by someone: thus, for example, the origins of the Labour Party lie in the Labour Representation Committee which was formed to co-ordinate efforts by trade unions to support the elction of working class MPs.

    It is still not a formal requirement in the UK to live in your constituency. Although nowadays it would be very difficult to be elected without spending some time there, in the past MPs were surprisingly infrequent visitors to their electors. One potential candidate (probably Conservative), when asked by the local party committee if he would live in the constituency, and replied "No, but I'll hunt in it".

  22. Rubrick said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    Thanks to this discussion I suddenly understand a bit of Tolkein naming which I'd never given much thought to before. The Shire is divided into four "farthings", which I now realize are the four-division counterpart to the "trithings" that gave rise to "ridings".

    (I of course now feel a bit foolish that I'd never noticed either that the name was the same as that of a British coin, or that "farth" and "fourth" were suspiciously similar. This sort of thing happens when you first read something when you're twelve or so.)

  23. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    The NDP's surge in Quebec is interesting, but ultimately disappointing in that there was a possibility that it would act as spoiler for CPC and Harper and allowing for a leftist minority government.

    I haven't followed Canadian politics since my divorce from a Canadian spouse; but I have to say that our elation at the '93 election and the destruction of the old Conservative Party would have become horror if we had known that it would eventually lead to the noxious Reform Party joining with the remains of the CP and forming a new conservative party that would end up dominating Canadian politics ten years later.

  24. ella said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

    The Quebec shift to NDP doesn't strike me as being as dramatic as many seem to think – the NDP occupies a very similar point on the political compass as the Bloc; with the obvious exception of the provincial autonomy thing their policies are very similar. Quebec sovreignity has become less and less of an issue amongst younger Quebecers in the past fifteen years or so, and they are increasingly aware of the advantages of having an MP who represents a national party. It should also be noted that Jack Layton (leader of the NDP) is originally from Montreal and speaks excellent, street-wise French. His performance in the French language leaders debate impressed a lot of Quebecers and is credited with swinging a lot of Quebec votes his way.

  25. American said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    If there is one thing to deter English-speaking Canadians from learning French, it should be the English dubbing on the CBC broadcasts. It made me really wish I did not know French, because I did not like listening to an idea once (in English), and then hearing it again (in French) accompanied by an annoying echo (the English dubbing.) That's how it was throughout Layton's speech because he was able to entirely repeat anything he said in one language in the other. It was really distracting to me, the American who's not used to bilingual politics.

  26. maidhc said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 5:29 am

    I would venture a guess that the swing from the Bloc to the NDP in Quebec represents the opinion of the voters that depending on a regional party to foster one's interests may be less effective than swinging behind a national party. Particularly a party that is now the Opposition.

    There are lots of Francophones who live outside Quebec. Sovereignty for Quebec would leave all those people out in the cold.

    A couple of years ago we spent our holidays in Quebec. I can speak some French, but I'm not totally fluent, my wife is the same.

    Montreal is a very nice city, with all sorts of interesting cultural events going on. But it seemed like language was kind of a political issue. I tried to talk to people in French, and they would reply in very fast and slangy French that was very difficult to understand.

    After that we went out in the countryside, and that was a much different experience. Nobody could speak any English at all. Given that, our attempts to communicate with people in French were met with encouragement. They would try to speak slowly and clearly to make things easy for us simpletons.

    In rural France I had much the same experience. People who were not fluent Francophones were tolerated like poorly educated children. I'm OK with that, because at least there is some attempt to communicate.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    In rural France I had much the same experience. People who were not fluent Francophones were tolerated like poorly educated children. I'm OK with that, because at least there is some attempt to communicate.

    In Paris, people will switch into English instead – English in the French sound system, which can be extremely hard to understand. To avoid triggering this, you need to be really quite fluent.

  28. N.C. Smith said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    To J.W. Brewer, who commented: "I don't know how common it is for Canadians to have "French-sounding" surnames but "English-sounding" given names". It is very common, and the reverse as well, at least here in Eastern Ontario and in West Quebec. Families have been marrying back and forth for generations. My wife has an Irish surname and is a francophone; I've worked with many people with french names and no ability to speak the language.

  29. LC said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    Adding to the name thing NC Smith is talking about, there is a whole history of Irish and Scottish surnames in Quebec. (The Irish case famously dramatized in one of the semi-legendary Candian Heritage Minutes.) The basics of that story is true, the French who adopted children often let them keep their family names.

    The shift to the NDP is an interesting one. I personally think it heralds a massive win for the separatist provincial party in the next election. The Bloc was sort of a failed experiment in terms of a regional party at the Federal level. (I think it could work if it didn't have sovereignty as the core reason for existing.) Add in that the Bloc had sort of turned into the "you will vote for us, we don't need to earn it" party, people got fed up. A huge number of the NDP candidates were elected sight unseen and the "parachute" case above is the kind of result. What happens next will be interesting.

    Of course, this shift did end up handing the conservatives a majority, so the damage to Canada in the short term will be pretty severe.

  30. Darrell said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    I'd just like to point out (belatedly) that Yorkshire isn't the only place in England with traditional divisions called ridings: Lindsey, the northern section of Lincolnshire, is traditionally divided into North, West and South Ridings. I didn't learn this from Tolkien, I learned it from Thomas Green's articles at — tangential, but I thought some of you might be interested. (Incidentally, I thought Tolkien explained the analogy between ridings and the Shire's Farthings in the Foreword or Appendices to the Lord of the Rings, but maybe it's in his Letters instead.)

    I wonder why Canada ended up using "riding" instead of "hundred", which seems to be the usual traditional subdivision of counties in England.

  31. Bill V Lee said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    Riding is officially Federal Electoral District (in the langue des anges: Circonscription) to Statistics Canada (another example of the use of "blanguisme' e.g. Pont Jacques Cartier Bridge, gramattically correct order and read by either language with contrasting adjecttive-noun order rules).

    Maps, profiles of the Districts/Circonscription at:

    Elections Canada uses the word ridings but it is unofficial. The current officlal term is Federal Electoral District, and Circonscription federale.

    Other words to the fore: Paper candidate (en), Poteau (fr)
    From the rabid federalist papers:

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    @Darrell: Hundreds still exist (although no longer with any specific governmental function) as the county subdivisions in my native Delaware. I grew up in Brandywine Hundred at the north end of the state; the awesomely-named North and South Murderkill Hundreds down in Kent Co. are not named redundantly — it's the Dutch-derived "kill" meaning "creek," also found in various other colonial-era toponyms such as Fishkill, New York. The final discontinuation of the use of hundreds as legislative districts/ridings about 50 years ago (due to one-man/one-vote concerns) means that Del. will no longer have politicians described in the newspapers as, e.g., State Sen. Joseph Blow (D.- S. Murderkill).

  33. Steve Morrison said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

    Tolkien’s explanation of the etymology of “farthing” is in a document called “Nomenclature of The Lord of the RIngs” which he wrote as an aid for translators. Here is the entry for “Farthing”:

    Farthings, The. See I 19. This is the same word as E. farthing (OE feorðing, ME ferthing), quarter of a penny; but used in its original sense, ‘a fourth part, a quarter’. This is modelled on thriding ‘third part’, still used of the divisions of Yorkshire, with loss of th after the th, t in Northriding, Eastriding, Westriding. The application to divisions of other measures than money has long been obsolete in E., and farthing has been used since early ME for a negligible amount, so that to E. ears the application to the divisions of the Shire (an area of about 18,000 square miles) is comical. This tone can hardly be reproduced. But related words in a LT could perhaps be used: as Dan. fjerding, Swed. fjärding; or Ger. Viertal (which is applied to ‘regions, districts’.)

    “LT” stands for “language of translation”.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

    The high proportion of Irish and Scottish names among francophones in Canada is due to intermarriage among Catholics – religion was once a more important marker of identity than language. As for French names of anglophones, if a francophone man married an anglophone woman it was likely that the children were raised in English, and even if they were bilingual, their own children would probably go on to marry anglophones.

    I used to know a "pure laine" Québec couple. The husband had started his working life in an anglophone environment and (being bilingual) been accepted by his colleagues. When he announced that he was getting married, his colleagues were dismayed that he would marry another francophone: "You are one of us now, you could have married an English girl!" no matter how wonderful his choice actually was in every respect.

  35. George said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    I had also, in my ignorance, assumed that a riding was so-called because of some relationship to the distance that could be covered by horse in some length of time. Being Irish, and therefore being most familiar with the term when applied to the North and South ridings of County Tipperary (and there are only two of them), the idea that it might mean a third would never have occurred to me. So maybe an other Irish commenter might know why the term is used in County Tipperary. Were there originally three of them? Or was the term applied to the county when its etymology had already been forgotten by the British administrators who subdivided Tipperary? It's amusing to think that they got their own language wrong; Brian Friel could have had a field day (sorry!) with that one…

  36. Joe Clark said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

    It would be nice if your genteel imperialist commenters would quit trying to paint the word riding as anything other than a bog-standard Canadian English noun. Everything has to be related to the British Isles or it isn’t real, is it? Well, guess what, Sherlock: We have our own vocabulary here.

RSS feed for comments on this post