In Canada as in many other countries in the world, immigration is necessary to replenish an aging population whose own birthrate has dropped over the years.
Every five years, when Statistics Canada releases its census, this simple enough equation becomes fraught with all-too-predictable insecurity regarding one of the country’s two official languages. For the first time since official bilingualism was adopted in 1969, we learn in the census released yesterday, French has been overtaken by “allophone” languages in certain areas of the country. Moreover, the percentage of those families speaking French at home across the country declined, as has the number of people capable of conducting a conversation in la langue de Falardeau—thus continuing a 30-year trend. The number of mother-tongue French speakers also decreased.
Should we cue the minor key funeral march for Canada’s francophonie? No.
Certainly, there are fluctuations. While there was a light decline in the number of mother tongue Francophones in New Brunswick (0.5 percentage point), the percentage actually grew in Alberta. (I wrote about Alberta’s Quebec miracle some time ago here.) In Ontario, there was also a slight decline in the number of those able to carry on a conversation in French. Still, to suggest French is in dangerous decline in Canada in general and in Quebec in particular is to have a fervent (read: politically motivated) imagination. More on this in a second.
The number of people who speak French at home across the country actually rose between 2006 and 2011, from 6.7 million to 7 million. It’s just that it didn’t keep up with population growth, bolstered as it is by that Allophone hoard. But if you consider that ‘Allophone’ can mean anything from Albanian to Zimbabwean, this is actually much less menacing to French (or English, for that matter) than it sounds, if it’s menacing at all. According the census, more than 200 languages were reported in the census as the mother tongue or language spoken at home, meaning individual “allophone” languages are nowhere near as dominant as they might seem. For example, in Toronto, a city of 5.5 million, there are about 1,787,000 people who speak a language other than English or French at home. Yet the largest language group amongst these, Cantonese, only accounts for roughly 156,000 people. Indeed, there are 588,000 people who speak another so-called “immigrant language” than the top 12 “other” languages. Translation: Toronto would be Tower of Babel Land were it not for English as the binding language.
And what goes for Toronto in English goes for Montreal in French. Here, the top non-official languages spoken at home are Arabic, Spanish and Italian; they account for about 259,000 souls, a significant but certainly not dominant numberin a city of 3.4 million. And according to census numbers, the vast majority of those immigrants can converse in French: 94.4 per cent of Quebecers can speak the language, a statistically insignificant sliver off the 2006 number of 95.5. This, despite the fact that Quebec has increased the number of immigrants welcomed to the province by 30 per cent since 2001. Translation: Bill 101 has worked like blazes, reversing even the slight decline of those able to speak French outside of Quebec’s borders. And, as I wrote in a pre-election piece, the number of Allophones adopting French as their daily language has increased by 21 percentage points since 1989. “It marks the first time since we’ve done these studies that the majority of immigrants chose French over English,” as OQLF spokesperson Martin Bergeron told me at the time. (Vincent Geloso has a good piece exploring the rise of French amongst non-Francophones here.)
And yet the numbers were met with characteristic indignation amongst péquistes. “The retreat of Quebec’s national language is worrisome,” tweeted Parti Québécois MNA Pierre Duchesne. Shortly before the election, his colleague Bernard Drainville tweeted to express his worry that “less than 50 per cent of Montrealers have French as a first language.” Jean-François Lisée, the PQ’s designated Montreal minister as well as its liaison with the English community, has called for several measures, including the prevention of Francophones and immigrants from attending English CEGEP as well as a point system that would, in his words, favour immigrants from Bordeaux to those from Shanghai.
The trouble, it seems, isn’t with the French language so much as who is speaking it. In Quebec, mother tongue Francophones who speak the language at home have indeed decreased, mostly on the island of Montreal. Since there has been a marked increase in immigration, this only stands to reason. Yet according to the PQ—a party whose education minister, remember, considers English “a foreign language”—it isn’t enough to speak French on the street, at the market or in the dépanneur; you have to speak it at home. Everyone else, immigrants and Anglos alike, is part of the problem.