New figures show that French language use continues to decline in Canada, including in Quebec, the historically Francophone province, where the number of people whose first spoken language is English now exceeds 1 million. This unprecedented situation comes at a time when efforts to protect French in Quebec are intensifying.
The rate of French language use has fallen in Quebec and almost all of Canada. The Canadian government’s latest figures, published Wednesday, show that the proportion of Canadians who predominantly speak French at home is declining throughout the country, with the exception of the sparsely populated Yukon Territory in the Far North.
While population growth for Canadians who speak French as their first official language – the country has two, French and English – stands at 1.6 percent from 2016 to 2021, overall population growth stands at 5.2 percent over the same period.
Furthermore, the proportion of Canadians who speak French as their first official language dropped from 22.2 percent to 21.4 percent in the same five-year span.
The trend is not new. The demographics related to French language use in Canada have been declining since 1971, and in the province of Quebec since 2001, according to Statistics Canada.
The federal minister of official languages, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, described the data as “worrisome”. French is more under threat in Canada, including in Quebec, than ever, according to the minister.
In keeping with her promise to fight the “decline of French”, Taylor in March tabled a bill to modernise Canada’s Official Languages Act, which came into law more than 50 years ago and has not undergone “major reform” since 1988, according to a government website.
Among the avenues being explored are the recognition of French as the official language of Quebec, the bilingual status of the eastern province of New Brunswick, and the bilingualism of judges on Canada’s Supreme Court.
A ‘force of assimilation’
In Quebec, the proportion of people who speak English as their first language has increased by 1 percent in five years, and their numbers have surpassed 1 million. Statistics on the first language spoken at home – the most significant indicator of the linguistic situation – show that the English-speaking population has increased by 1.2 million, while the French-speaking population has increased by 120,000, 10 times less.
“The phenomenon that underlies the (higher) increase in English and the weak increase in French is … a force of English assimilation that is out of proportion to (the force of) French assimilation in Canada as a whole,” explained researcher and statistician Charles Castonguay on Radio-Canada on Thursday. “Nearly 3 million allophones (editor’s note: an allophone is a person whose mother tongue is a foreign language within the community in which they live) have adopted English as their main language spoken at home, and nearly half a million mother-tongue French speakers have adopted English as their home language,” he continued. “On a Canada-wide scale, French is losing out to English in terms of linguistic assimilation.”
New arrivals in Quebec who speak neither French nor English tend to favour English, especially those who settle on the island of Montreal, where a quarter of Quebec’s population lives. Castonguay also noted young Francophones’ growing attraction to English. “On the island of Montreal, 6 percent of young adults whose mother tongue is French say they have adopted English as their main language at home,” he said last year to TV5 Monde. This trend towards anglicisation weakens the presence of French on the island, he said, where the French mother tongue lost 5 percent between the 2001 and 2016 censuses. “Unprecedented in history,” Castonguay said, referring to the speed and magnitude of the decline.
‘Struggling to gallicise’
Faced with birth rates that are insufficient to ensure the replenishment of their ranks, Francophone and Anglophone communities in Canada rely on immigration instead.
Maintaining the linguistic balance would require that the share of French in overall assimilation rise to more than 90 percent, when it is now around 50 percent, Castonguay explains in his book “Le français en chute libre, la nouvelle dynamique des langues au Québec” (French in free fall, the new dynamic of languages in Quebec). The primary factor in the decline of French in Quebec is, according to Castonguay, the significant increase in immigration since 2000. “Immigrants that we are struggling to gallicise,” he said to TV5 Monde.
Canada’s government is promoting an immigration strategy that aims to increase Francophone immigration to provinces outside Quebec to 4.4 percent by 2023, support the integration of French-speaking newcomers and build the capacity of Francophone communities.
But despite this plan, the appeal of English remains strong, and allophones are still shifting to English, particularly because of the greater currency of English in the labour market.
Firmer measures are needed to improve the French language situation in Quebec, and more broadly in Canada, where French-speaking immigration is “doomed to failure”, according to Castonguay. The researcher thinks that it is better to orient Francophone immigration towards Quebec, so that it benefits the entire French-speaking population of the country.
A Francophone ‘revival’, or ‘withdrawal’?
The release of the government data comes at a time when efforts to protect the French language in Quebec are intensifying. Bill 96, the province’s latest language law that passed in late May, restricts the use of English in government services, businesses and the public space, makes learning French a fundamental right and duty for all immigrants and Anglophones, and requires businesses to use French on their storefronts.
The law, which comes into force on September 1, states that all businesses with 25 to 49 employees will be subject to the Charter of the French Language, a 1977 law that made French the official language of Quebec. The law will also apply to businesses under federal jurisdiction, such as banks. It is seen as a new act of “withdrawal” by Anglophones, and as discriminatory against Anglophones and allophones.
Language is a very sensitive and even explosive subject in Canada, where thousands protested against Bill 96 in May.
“It’s the beginning of a great linguistic revival,” said Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s French language minister and a deputy in its National Assembly, who described the legislation as a “first step” towards a more Francophone province. The data published on Wednesday demonstrate “the relevance of Bill 96”, Jolin-Barrette tweeted on Thursday.
When the law was passed, Quebec’s Premier François Legault called it a matter of “survival”, saying that without a linguistic framework of its kind, Quebec would undergo a “Louisianaisation”, a reference to the southern US state where the US Census Bureau in 2020 estimated that French, once the majority language, was spoken by about 77,000 people out of a population of more than 4.6 million.
This article has been translated from the original in French.