A nasty online dustup in the NDP leadership race about speaking French

You think the NDP leadership race is too polite? How about this dustup between supporters of Romeo Saganash and Brian Topp. It starts when a Saganash supporters gets a phone call from Topp’s team and, in that call, Topp’s canvasser suggests that Saganash, who represents a northern Quebec riding, cannot speak French. Topp, on Twitter, quickly tries to put out any suggestion that that’s what his team was implying. Not good enough, says Saganash’s campaign manager, who, also on Twitter, calls for an apology.

[Social media scholars, please note, this is all taking place in near real-time on a social media networks. Just thought I’d say.]

Jude MacDonald, journalist and a founding editor of Rabble.ca, started all this off with this post on her Facebook page at about 8:30 pm on Wednesday night.

Tonight, I received a call from someone representing Brian Topp’s campaign. After a brief introduction, the individual on the other end of the phone asked me whether I’m leaning to any particular candidate. Whether there is one person I’m supporting more than others. I indicated that I am supporting Romeo Saganash.

He asked, Why?

I answered that I am impressed with his diplomacy and balance for starters. And added that all the candidates have good qualities. That we are lucky with this field.

He asked me, Aren’t you concerned with Romeo’s lack of fluency in French?

I answered, What?

He asked, Are you concerned with Romeo’s lack of fluency in French?

I asked, Are you kidding?

He said, No. I am from Quebec.

I said, He is the most fluent candidate we have.

He said, Are you sure of that? Because I am from Quebec, and that’s not …

I said, He is perfectly fluent in French.

He said, I don’t know about that. I’m from Quebec and –

I said, I have heard him speak French. And according to Chantal Hebert, for starters, he is the most fluent.

He said, I’m from Montreal …

I said, That’s nice, but you know this is really not very impressive.

He asked, Why?

I said, If this is the messaging coming from the Topp campaign, this is not impressive.

He said, Well let me ask you this way: What is it about Topp’s campaign that you don’t find impressive?

I said, No. You don’t understand. Are you reading from a script? Is this the messaging you are being directed to give? This is really not impressive. It is so unimpressive that I am going to get off the phone and contact the Saganash campaign immediately.

He said something or another. He seemed a bit panicked, if I were to weigh in with an opinion.

I said, This is no longer a discussion. This conversation is over.

He seemed to still be trying to engage as I said good-bye and hung up.

He was calling from Quebec. I have his number written down. He was calling from Quebec, phoning a party member in Ontario, telling someone outside Quebec that Romeo Saganash is not fluent in French. He was calling on behalf of Brian Topp’s campaign, the campaign with the most money in donations, based on 4th quarter reporting for 2011. Enough money to pay the cost of having people in Quebec spread disinformation about Romeo Saganash, it appears.

I did mention that I was not impressed.

Of some note, a variety of my Parliamentary Press Gallery colleagues have identified Saganash, who speaks English, French and Cree, as being the best French speaker (or one of the two best) among the eight NDP leadership candidates. Among French speakers, his ability to speak that language is unquestioned.

On Twitter, at around 10 pm, Topp is challenged — and responds:

Brian Topp challenged and responds

Here’s what “BT” wrote at Rabble.ca:

Romeo is, of course, superbly multi-lingual, a brilliant negotiator and advocate, and already a great MP. As well as an impressive colleague in this leadership race. I apologize for any offense.
I have a great team working with me and I’m very proud of them and all the hard work they’re doing. This is a colleague who needs to know a little more about Romeo.

All the best,

Around the same time, Daniel Wilson, Saganash’s campaign manager, also responds on Twitter:

Saganash Campaign Manager Wilson


UPDATE: And now, on Thursday morning, “Team Topp” put out this Tweet:


3 thoughts on “A nasty online dustup in the NDP leadership race about speaking French”

  1. The Topp campaign did move quickly to address this last night. However, their response was a little too much of a politician’s non-apology apology (“I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”) as opposed to true repentance (“I’m sorry this happened. This shouldn’t have happened. I take responsibility that it did happen. We’re taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”), which finally happened this morning.

    Having had to deal with the fallout of over-eager campaign volunteers who mistakenly believe they’re helping, I do find it credible that a Topp volunteer was freelancing. In fact, the message track was so blindingly stupid I’d actually have trouble believing that this was authorized messaging from the Topp campaign. The key people on the Topp campaign are too smart to try a stunt like that.

    But this incident creates a two track problem for the Topp campaign.

    First, there is the “dirty trick” itself. While I might be prepared to accept the Topp campaign’s explanation, there will be lots who wont. But that is the least of their troubles.

    A bigger problem is the inept way in which the issue was managed once it did break. When an issue is breaking in real time, you don’t have 12 hours to figure out the right message track. The campaign’s apology came 12 hours too late. In addition, the freelancing of two mid-level Topp operatives in their attempts to discredit Jude MacDonald undermines the credibility of the more fulsom apology even now that it has been offered.

    While the initial incident is a problem, the mishandling of the matter threatens to undermine the central narrative of the Topp campaign – that Brian is a seasoned political professional who is ready for prime time.

    Brian may be all that. But you couldn’t tell from the events of the last 18 hours.

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