The language situation in Canada and Quebec

Statistics Canada’s release of 2006 census data on language brought forth a number of reactions, particularly in Quebec. English-speaking Canada seems less given to linguistic anguish than French-speaking Canada, but it would be a mistake to underestimate its diversity of existing languages and potential interest in better understanding the language behaviour of immigrants.

Despite the occasional feverishness of the Canadian language debate, the game, since the publication of 2006 census data, has been to present the most reasonable or measured reading possible, especially as concerns the future of French in Quebec. Although this might appear normal, anyone acquainted with Statistics Canada’s tendency to embellish the situation or not call a spade a spade should welcome such a reasoned debate. The release of census data coincides with the appearance of a number of studies undertaken by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF) aimed at presenting a detailed picture of Quebecers’ long-term language behaviour. These studies, coupled with Statistics Canada data, also make it possible to assess the effectiveness of the paradigm that for more than 30 years has guided efforts at dealing with language in Quebec and in Canada as a whole. Thus, in the absence of a language crisis in the country, Canadians can measure the progress achieved, highlight the grey areas and identify zones for future intervention.

Understood this way, the current language debate is not an invitation to governments to retreat into indifference and leave citizens to try to figure out the situation. All states, even the most liberal – think of the United States – intervene in the field of language. Canada, for its part, recognizes that language is one of its fundamental characteristics and that it has obligations toward its two official languages, while encouraging the learning of other languages in line with its commitment to multiculturalism. This means that we must take seriously what the 2006 data and the various studies published so far have revealed about the Canadian linguistic landscape – with care, they can be useful in forming language policies.

A portrait of languages in Canada

What can we conclude about the state of official languages in the country? Is French doing well in Quebec? What about bilingualism and French in the rest of the country? What can we say about nonofficial languages in multicultural Canada?

Canada certainly has two official languages, French and English, and that doesn’t seem likely to change soon. However, Statistics Canada’s 2006 census data force us to recognize two phenomena: the growth of inequality between the official language groups and the rise of nonofficial languages. French as a mother tongue continues to decline in Canada, falling from 23.5 per cent in 1996 to 22.1 per cent in 2006. English as a mother tongue has also shrunk, from 59.8 per cent in 1996 to 59.1 per cent in 2001 and 57.8 per cent in 2006. However, this situation does not generate language insecurity among the anglophone majority as it does among francophones.

At the same time, the number of allophones and other users of languages other than French and English has increased significantly. Of the 1.1 million immigrants who arrived in Canada from 2001 to 2006, 81 per cent have a mother tongue other than French or English – notably Chinese, Punjabi, Spanish, Arabic, Tagalog and Urdu. This growth and linguistic diversity makes itself felt particularly in metropolitan areas, especially Montreal, where 22 per cent of the population has a mother tongue other than French or English; Toronto, where allophones constitute 44 per cent; and Vancouver, where they represent 41 per cent. Italian, Arabic and Spanish are the leading languages among Montreal’s allophones; Chinese, Italian and Punjabi dominate in Toronto; while in Vancouver it’s Chinese, Punjabi and Tagalog. For the first time, we are seeing increased numbers of immigrants in middle-sized urban centres such as Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

Seen from another angle, 20 per cent of Canadians declare a nonofficial language as their mother tongue. Even if there appears to be more everyday use of nonofficial languages than in the past, considerable movement toward English can be foreseen. In 2006, 67 per cent of Canadians used English at home. It is a good bet that the children of parents who declared a nonofficial mother tongue will declare English as their mother tongue. Thus, despite a diminishing proportion of mother tongue anglophones, English has continued to make appreciable gains in Canada since 1971, and the situation is not about to change. In spite of the diverse nature of anglophone Canada, on the linguistic level there is nevertheless a trend toward uniformity. Furthermore, French-English bilingualism among anglophone Canadians is stagnating. While 17.4 per cent of Canadians are able to conduct a conversation in either French or English, only 7.5 per cent of anglophones outside Quebec and 5.6 per cent of allophones consider themselves bilingual.

In contrast, especially as a result of high rates of assimilation of francophones outside Quebec, French is losing ground as a language of everyday use in Canada. In Ontario and New Brunswick, where there are still large concentrations of persons whose mother tongue is French, 41.8 per cent and 11.2 per cent of francophones respectively spoke English most often at home in 2006. Ontario francophones seem thus to have reached a critical point in their language behaviour, which is more like that of allophone immigrants or of francophones in other English Canadian provinces where assimilation reaches alarming proportions: 72 per cent in British Columbia and 69 per cent in Alberta.

Certainly, Statistics Canada takes care to indicate that mother-tongue abandonment, not to speak of assimilation, is not the whole story of language behaviour in minority settings. However, a subsequent study of official languages in minority environments entitled Minorities Speak Up1 does not change the picture that English continues to nibble away at the “territoriality” of French outside Quebec, including in Ontario. In sum, French in contact with English appears to have a hard time resisting a transfer to the dominant language. Isolation seems to contribute to maintaining the vitality of French as an everyday language, but francophones outside Quebec do not all live in small, linguistically homogeneous communities. Charles Castonguay has shown how in Ottawa, where a large part of the Franco-Ontarian population is concentrated, assimilation, especially among youth, is a phenomenon contrary to the openness to both official languages that should prevail in Canada’s capital.2

The situation in Quebec

The language situation in Quebec deserves special attention. The 2006 census data show that, for the first time since 1931, the proportion of Quebecers who have French as their mother tongue has dropped below the threshold of 80 per cent. While these figures play on francophones’ language insecurity, the data also show that 24 per cent of allophones in Quebec use French at home, compared to 20 per cent in 2001 and 17 per cent in 1996 – an encouraging progression.

At the same time, the language situation in Montreal, where the future balance of English and French is at stake, is worrying. The data reveal that the percentage of those in the metropolitan region whose mother tongue is French went down from 68.3 per cent in 2001 to 65.7 per cent in 2006, but that the everyday use of French rose slightly from 69.1 per cent to 70.9 per cent. This slight increase is associated with the greater presence of allophones in the metropolitan region, rising from 19 per cent in 2001 to 21.8 per cent in 2006. Certainly, English continues to have an undeniable attraction for immigrants, but they also contribute to the reinforcement of French, even though it is too soon to break out the champagne.

The situation is more precarious on Montreal Island compared to the metropolitan region as a whole. Less than half (49.8 per cent) of the island’s population is of French mother tongue, compared to 53.2 per cent in 2001. In addition, French is declining as an everyday language: from 56.4 per cent in 2001 to 54.2 per cent in 2006. Under these conditions, Montreal corresponds more to the prototype of a bilingual or multilingual city than a francophone metropolis, and (leaving out the suburbs for a moment) the loss of native francophones in Montreal gives the impression of a Quebec cut in two. With francophones on Montreal Island now in the minority, anguish and a certain mistrust of allophones can only increase. It is also worth noting that the number of persons in Gatineau with English as mother tongue grew from 9 per cent in 2001 to 12.6 per cent in 2006.

Data on the language of work, however, present a different picture for the future of French. The great majority of francophones in Canada report using French at work most often. In addition, francophones outside Quebec said they used French at work most often, in proportions that reached 93 per cent in New Brunswick and 71 per cent in Ontario. Furthermore, in Quebec, 65 per cent of allophones and 68 per cent of anglophones use French most often at work. In Montreal, the situation appears to be stable, even though 40 per cent of workers say they use English most often at work.

If these data serve to reassure francophones, they must be used with care, as they are very incomplete. Using a language more often than another at work is not synonymous with working in that language. To measure the situation well, additional studies of possible connections between the use of French or English at work and respondents’ sphere of activity and level of schooling will be needed. Such studies will give us a better idea of the effects of globalization on the language of work, but also of the effects of Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.

To this effect, Statistics Canada’s experts have suggested caution in interpreting the results, indicating that the contribution of francotrope immigrants to Quebec – allophones who speak Arabic, Romanian and Spanish – constitutes the main reason for the increase in French as the language of work. Thus, the effect of Bill 101 on the job market would be only indirect, even though the francization efforts of large companies – which according to Simon Langlois, chair of the Comité de Suivi de la Situation Linguistique of the OQLF, have borne fruit – need to be taken into account as well.3 It would be equally important to specify the context in which workers use French or English. Is it in communicating with the public, their colleagues or their boss? Data on language use at work open a new field of research which may teach us more about the language behaviour of Quebecers and Canadians in general.

What now?

The absence of a language or national-unity crisis in the country allows a less politicized reading than usual of the situation of official and unofficial languages. This relative linguistic peace should also push decision-makers to go beyond electoral concerns and think more about the effectiveness of the paradigms that underlie language legislation such as the federal Official Languages Act and Quebec’s Bill 101. The Official Languages Act does not appear to have a direct effect on the potential for French to blossom in Canada or on the openness of anglophones to the country’s other official language. As for Bill 101, experts agree for the moment that the situation in Quebec is not catastrophic and efforts toward francization seem to be working, but that we must stay the course.

Canada and Quebec have approached language in different ways. Canada has favoured a personal approach to language arrangements founded on recognition of the rights of the individual. More precisely, in 1969 Canada adopted legislation proclaiming the equality of French and English, a concrete expression of its project of a bilingual nation-state founded on the recognition of the individual right to service in the official language of one’s choice. Besides constitutional recognition of French and English in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms since 1982, the Canadian government adopted a new Official Languages Act in 1988. This legislation allows the government to take stronger action and intervene more broadly in fostering official-language minorities – including in areas of provincial jurisdiction – as well as giving federal civil servants the right to work in the official language of their choice.

In contrast, Quebec has favoured the principle of territoriality, aiming to strengthen the country’s minority language within its territory. Quebec sees itself as a francophone state in North America and claims full recognition of this responsibility in or out of Canadian federalism. In 1974, it adopted Bill 22, making French the official language of Quebec. Under this legislation, French had to be used in public signage, businesses were required to implement francization programs, children of immigrants had to go to French schools and the French text of laws was given priority. Bill 101, passed in 1977, further extended the scope of Bill 22 and other existing measures.

Up to now, the Canadian and Quebec approaches to language have coexisted despite the tension between them, notably in relation to language of education. Bill 101 constitutes a counterweight to the effects of the Official Languages Act in Quebec, where it promotes English. As well, the federal legislation has made possible the hiring of more francophones in Canada’s civil service, thus putting an end to injustices built up over several decades.

However, the publication of recent statistical data reveals that the balance of power between the two paradigms is fragile and more targeted action by Ottawa is required. Instead of pitting Canadian bilingualism against Quebec unilingualism, Canada would benefit from reducing the irritants between the two approaches. By making a greater effort to combine the advantages of both, it could create a more holistic model for language arrangements, better adapted to the linguistic needs of the country.

As an example, in December 2007 Ottawa launched consultations as it prepared to release a new action plan, as part of its efforts to help official-language minorities in the country develop and flourish. Ottawa has already invested substantially in the development of official-language minorities – around $750 million was put into projects following the release of an initial action plan on official languages. However, its investments now need to be coupled with greater concern for concrete and sustainable results, a concern previous governments have lacked. The federal government could also ensure that its actions contribute to reinforcing the territoriality of French, especially in Ontario and New Brunswick where the future of French outside Quebec is at stake. Francophones in these regions should not only be proud to be bilingual – they should also be able to live in French.

Taking an integrated approach, the federal government should further recognize that it has an important role to play in the area of personal bilingualism. Beyond the national unity debate, anglophone Canadians should further honour the French language. And they could take their cue from the Prime Minister, for whatever his severest critics may think, Stephen Harper is a model bilingual citizen! However, he needs to go further in redefining the Canadian linguistic pact as a collaborative bilingualism project rather than a competitive one. In the era of globalization, in both Quebec and the rest of the country we need citizens open to multilingualism – people who can act as conduits and travellers from one culture to another.

Thus the federal government could take the initiative in reviving interest in the learning of French in Canada. Canada is a fascinating laboratory for language coexistence. Although spoken by fewer people than English, French is, like English, a major international language. Ensuring a large number of French-English bilingual Canadians is part of the requirements for solidarity among Canadian citizens, akin to equalization in fiscal matters. Strengthening our bilingual reputation also enhances our distinctiveness on the international scene.

More precisely, the Canadian government could foster language exchange within the public service, further encourage French immersion in bilingual universities and propose a bold exchange program between francophone and anglophone students. It should also favour the learning of third languages, especially those that are most widely spoken in the country, such as Spanish and Arabic in Quebec and Chinese in the rest of Canada. This way, it could reap greater benefit from Canada’s ambient multilingualism and excellence in language learning, without calling into question its official languages.

Until now, the federal government has not thought seriously about how its actions could contribute more directly to perpetuating French in Quebec. Its recognition of Quebec as a nation in a united Canada, like its recognition of French as a founding language of the country, should contribute to guiding its actions in the domain of official language. An initial gesture, which would reassure Quebecers whose mother tongue is French, would be to recognize Bill 101 in the constitution.

For its part, how does Quebec see the future of its territorial model? If language transfers in Quebec toward French seem due more to immigration policies than to Bill 101, Quebecers might ask themselves whether Bill 101 could be applied more broadly so that the government’s francization efforts could be better targeted. In a recent article, Le Devoir columnist Michel David wrote that the Quebec government was putting no language requirements on foreign investors, most of whom are from China and the Middle East.4 In addition, for 30 years the government of Quebec, whatever party was in power, has refused for economic reasons to impose francization on businesses with 50 or fewer employees. However, experts consider that Quebec should insist on the francization of businesses with fewer than 50 employees, as they appear to employ large numbers of allophones. Most allophones and francophones accept the fact of living in a francophone society. They should therefore accept certain constraints.

The efforts of anglophone hardliners in Quebec to limit the direct effects of Bill 101 in the field of education should also stop, since they can only increase the language insecurity of francophones and send the wrong message to allophones. They also serve to perpetuate a siege mentality in the anglophone community that damages the credibility of the network of anglophone associations. More precisely, the recourse to the courts by some anglophones who exploit prejudices about the Quebec education system can only harm the linguistic balance. A better means must be found to encourage anglophones and francophones to work together on language learning instead of continuing to throw oil on the fire.

Premier Jean Charest’s lack of leadership in this domain also contributes to undermining the situation. The proposal to teach English from Grade 1 that he implemented in 2005 only added to the discomfort, since it was a cosmetic change aimed at political advantage rather than the result of serious thinking about language learning in Quebec. However, in spite of their insecurity, francophone Quebecers never stop saying in every possible forum that they want to learn more English to get better jobs. Even the Parti Québécois thinks francophones need to master English better.

Certainly, in the Canadian context, francophones should not have to face great difficulty in getting better jobs because they don’t speak English. However, the time is past when francophones made a political choice not to learn English. Young people no longer have the complex their elders did, and don’t feel oppressed by the English language. On the other hand, Quebecers don’t need to hear, as they often do, that learning English will make them better citizens or that it’s more important to master English than mathematics or the sciences. Unilingual anglophone Canadians rarely acknowledge that their lack of ability to speak other languages makes them less open to the rest of the world. Francophone Quebecers need, however, to read and write their language to international standards. Integrating too many anglicisms or idiosyncrasies into the language taught in school – and used in the media – is yet another way for French to disappear in North America.

Finally, the Quebec government should spare no effort in the area of teaching French to immigrants. If one thing came clear in the media coverage of the debate on reasonable accommodation, it is that Quebecers want to integrate immigrants linguistically more than to limit their liberty of religious and cultural expression. The more immigrants adopt French as their everyday language and send their children to French schools, the more French will become the next generation’s mother tongue, even in Montreal. Middle-sized cities in English Canada – cities other than Toronto and Vancouver – now have large immigrant populations. The same thing needs to happen in Quebec. Immigrants to Quebec should be encouraged to settle outside Montreal. If Montreal needs immigrants, the rest of Quebec should not be left out.

Toward a new paradigm?

The study of language statistics should not serve only to fuel debate among experts; it should also guide actual language policy pursued by governments. New factors such as labour mobility, weaker government intervention, the knowledge economy and innovation are all putting pressure on national or minority language arrangements and can create large imbalances in some parts of the world. For a number of years, the Quebec government refused to face these questions. However, the publication of the language data from the 2006 Canadian census revealed that language insecurity is still an important factor among many Quebecers whose mother tongue is French, even if progress has been made in the last 30 years in the francization of the workplace and of allophones.

The ever more pronounced weakness of French outside Quebec, the gains of English in public space in Canada and Quebec, the increasing number of immigrants whose mother tongue is not French and legislation that does not adequately contribute to the balance of French and English in the country constitute new concerns and challenges that hint at the possibility of a paradigm shift in language arrangements in Canada and in Quebec. In this context, holistic action is needed that further recognizes the necessary territoriality of French so that its survival can be guaranteed. A good language policy should take account of this unavoidable phenomenon and always aim as much as possible to strengthen the concentration of languages on their territories. French being weaker than English, the federal government should not hesitate to declare zones where the use of French is unquestioned. For its part, Quebec should proceed along the same lines and further promote French in all sectors.


1 Jean-Pierre Corbeil, Claude Grenier and Sylvie Lafrenière, Minorities Speak Up: Results of the Survey on the Vitality of Official-Language Minorities (Ottawa: StatisticsCanada, 2007).

2 Charles Castonguay, “Démographie comparée des populations francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick et de l’Ontario,” in Simon Langlois and Jocelyn Létourneau, eds., Aspects de la nouvelle francophonie canadienne (Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2004), pp. 215–30.

3 Simon Langlois, “Un portrait juste,” La Presse, March 6, 2008, p. A27.

4 Michel David, “Le prix à payer,” Le Devoir, January 26–27, 2008.