Will immigrants save the French language in Quebec, or hasten its demise?

Language advocates are increasingly leery of immigration

If, as one of Quebec’s own websites proclaims, the province is on the hunt for “willing, dynamic people” to immigrate to its shores, then Jessica Rosales almost certainly fits the bill. The college-trained Rosales and her husband, Roberto Belmar Torres, a design engineer, wanted to emigrate from their native Chile and, spurred by a string of cheery, unsolicited emails from Quebec’s Immigration Department, the pair chose to settle in Montreal in March 2010. “We decided on Quebec for the French culture,” the 37-year-old Rosales says. “We chose it even though we knew it would be harder.”

It certainly was. Because neither could speak the language, they each took a 10-month French course. Save for the occasional nervous breakdown (“I got burned out, I couldn’t stop crying,” says Rosales of one episode) that even prompted the purchase of a pair of one-way tickets to Toronto that they never used, the pair is quite happy with their lives here. They even found jobs in their new-found language. Jessica is an administrative assistant at a refugee resource centre, while Belmar Torres works at a large Montreal engineering firm. They work almost entirely in French.

Yet increasingly, language advocates are turning this apparent success story into a narrative of decline of the French language in Quebec. The reason: though the pair conduct much of their public lives in French, they speak their native Spanish in the confines of their home. Earlier this year, the governing Liberals announced plans to cut the yearly number of immigrants allowed into the province by 4,000, to 50,000, by 2012, while the the right-of-centre Action démocratique du Québec has called for a further clawback to 46,000. The Parti Québécois believe “immigration should be set at the ability to Frenchify new arrivals,” says PQ spokesperson Éric Gamache, and popular former Péquiste minister François Legault, who is flirting with the idea of running for premier, has called for the number to be capped at 40,000.

Others are even more strident. “We must become our own country, period,” militant sovereignist Gérald Larose told La Presse in the wake of a report detailing a decrease in the percentage of Quebec-born francophones. His argument: an independent Quebec would have absolute power over its immigration policy.

On the face of it, so-called “allophones” (immigrants whose native language is neither French nor English) would seem an odd target, and not only because, unlike the Canada-born English population living in Quebec, they are required by law to attend primary and secondary school in French. Like nearly every other province in the country, Quebec is faced with a looming demographic problem brought on by lower birth rates—a void often filled by immigrants. Ontario, for example, took in roughly 104,000 non-refugee immigrants in 2010 alone.

And even with 54,000 new arrivals a year, Quebec is falling behind. According to demographer Jacques Henripin, the province needs between 70,000 and 80,000 immigrants a year to compensate for its lower birth rate—people like Rosales and Belmar Torres. To Rosales, the idea that Quebec would cut down on the number of immigrants allowed into the province is absurd. “I’m a taxpayer,” she says. “Who needs who?”

The feeling is often mutual. By and large, Quebecers have long cast a beady eye at Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism; a recent Angus Reid poll noted that 66 per cent of francophones in the province believe multiculturalism is a threat to the French language. Practically every major demographic report released in the province over the last two decades has sparked debate and uproar about the survival of the language.

But does the decline of francophones necessarily mean the decline of French, when those immigrants arriving here must by law attend school in la langue de René Lévesque? Marc Termote thinks so. The demographer authored a recent report illustrating the demographic decline of Quebec-born francophones in the province; he says they will be overtaken as a majority by immigrants by 2031. And while he makes pains to say he isn’t a Larose-style sovereignist—“We don’t need independence to ensure the survival of a language,” he says—he believes the sheer numbers, coupled with the creeping bilingualism of Montreal, is detrimental to the language. “I am one of those people who says that the government should have no say whatsoever over what language is used at home,” Termote says. However, “the problem is that the language used at home becomes the language of the children.”

This wouldn’t be a problem in, say, the overwhelmingly francophone city of Saguenay. But roughly 75 per cent of Quebec’s immigrants settle in the 500 sq. km of Montreal where, says Termote, “there is free choice in what language you work in.” (Montreal is home to roughly 48,000 businesses with less than 50 employees that don’t fall under the province’s language provisions.) “The problem is Montreal. In the regions there are no problems. You will only speak French in Chicoutimi.”

“It’s not up to immigrants to resolve the problems of French in Quebec,” Termote adds. “We tell immigrants to have children, because we don’t want to have any. We tell them to go out to the regions, because we don’t want to, we tell them to learn French in a hurry, because French is declining. I can’t accept that the future of the French in Quebec is the responsibility of immigrants.”

Still others see no problem at all with the immigrant influx into Quebec. Jean-Benoît Nadeau, author of the book The Story of French, recently published a column decrying the accepted definition of the term “francophone” in the province. “French is no longer the language of one ethnic group, but one for all ethnic groups,” Nadeau writes. “Only in Quebec do we tolerate such a restrictive definition. Why not include the woven sash or ketchup tortière in the definition of francophone while we’re at it? It’s a disgrace.”

Jessica Rosales agrees. After being courted by the Quebec government (and spending an estimated $13,000 in fees and plane tickets) to get here, then spending nearly a year studying the language, she knows quite well that she can still vote with her feet. “I like Quebec, I like Montreal, but I can live somewhere else.”

Will immigrants save the French language in Quebec, or hasten its demise?

  1. Francophones in Quebec don’t have enough children to even replace themselves and yet fret about the survival of their culture?

    NEWS FLASH: Culture is what you’re born into. Even if you get every allophone immigrant to speak french at work, you are doing nothing about the culture issue. Nothing at all.

    Culture is a part of who we are from birth. It’s not just language or history but a birthright, a geneology. The only way to ensure the continuation of YOUR culture is to have children and raise them with a knowledge of THEIR culture. Not complicated.

    The example family above are people from Chile with a Chilean culture who moved to Quebec and speak french in their everydays work lives. However, their culture isn’t francophone, and even generations from now their children and grandchildren will still be descended from immigrants from Chile. They’ll never be descended from colonial France no matter what laws you pass.

    Frankly, I’m glad we have multiculturalism in Ontario and the rest of Canada. I have interesting conversations with interesting people and we all get along because we share common values even though our cultures and perspectives are often quite different.

    And because I don’t spend my time fretting about it, I don’t care what language they speak at home and can get on with my own life. Live my own culture without angst.

    English as a language will survive and adapt and change as it has for centuries, and will remain the common work-a-day language here precisely because it’s one of the few common features between so many many different people originating from different cultures.

    French will surive too. It has for centuries as well and for the same reasons. All this angst is just pointless.

    As far as culture, well in reality that changes with time anyways, and no matter what kind of deathgrip you want to place on it keeping it within today’s perspective, a century from now it will mean something different than is does today, just as it meant something different a century ago.

    Passing totalitarian laws will change nothing in long run, it just creates division for no reason.

    •  Expand NEWS FLASH @ Phil King….You don’t have to be of French descent to identify with francophone culture.  Lots of people in Quebec are descendants of Irish, Italian, Portuguese, etc immigrants and they identify more with the francophone culture of QC, as opposed to the anglophone QC culture.  Many of these people are not even fluent in the language of their ancestors.  Culture is not solely based on geneology, it’s based on so many factors like what neighbourhood and with which people you grow up Expand
      NEWS FLASH @ Phil King….You don’t have to be of French descent to identify with francophone culture.  Lots of people in Quebec are descendants of Irish, Italian, Portuguese, etc immigrants and they identify more with the francophone culture of QC, as opposed to the anglophone QC culture.  Many of these people are not even fluent in the language of their ancestors.  Culture is not solely based on geneology, it’s based on so many factors like what neighbourhood and with which people you grow up

  2. ” ‘However, “the problem is that the language used at home becomes the language of the children.’ ”

    Personnellement, je ne comprend pas cette attitude.  J’imagine que les dits enfants iront à l’école et et parleront le français avec leurs camarades de classe.  Qu’ils vont jouer et trainer dans la rue avec leurs amis et parler français avec eux.

    Si ces amis dignent aller chez ces enfants des parents d’origine chilienne, ils vont apprendre des choses d’un autre pays, manger des plats différents et sûrement parler français avec Rosalie et Roberto.

    La peur ne mène jamais aux bonnes décisions et c’est cette peur qui freine toujours le Québec de vivre en harmonie avec lui-même ou le reste du pays. 

    • No way are they going to speak French to their parents.  The parents are born and raised Chiliens and at home they will likely speak to their kids in the language they feel most comfortable in.  Research suggests that parents continue to speak their maternal language to kids so as to provide a good foundation for building second language skills.  Maybe their kids will be schooled in French but I do not think they will speak only French to their parents.  Anecdote – I am anglo, my partner is from Quebec (ironically, Saguenay, that they mention). Yet we only ever speak to each other at home in English.  I would not raise my kids in French even though I am now fluently bilingual.  It’s not that natural.  And yes, we must be considered terrible by the Qc Govt.  MWAHAHA.

      • No.  You misunderstand.  It would be the francophone Québécois friends coming over who would speak French with the hispanophone parents.

        As well, I believe the kids would eventually speak more French than Spanish with their parents.

  3. The power to preserve their language and culture is in their hands – or rather, their loins.

    Despite all the efforts made by the Quebec government to encourage people to have children, it isn’t happening. They have one of the lowest – if not the lowest – birthrate in Canada. With not enough births to sustain the population, they are literally dying out. Whether inside of Canada or on their own, there’s only one fix for their problem: start having kids.

    • False. Quebec has the highest birth rate of all provinces except for Alberta. Check your number before writing. 

      • I was admittedly relying on memory; they used to be among the lowest. Also, for clarity, I meant to refer to fertility rate.

        I have now checked and their numbers have indeed improved in recent years. But unless you have something more recent than what’s available from the StatsCan website – http://www40.statcan.gc.ca/l01/cst01/hlth85b-eng.htm - then you’re also wrong. It shows all three prairie provinces, as well as two territories, have a higher fertility rate.

        I note also that despite the rise, the fertility rate is still well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

        What the chart doesn’t indicate, though, is if the growth is evenly spread, or driven by immigrants. The article seems to suggest the latter – which brings us back to the crux of my original statement: the only way to preserve their language and culture is to ensure a healthy fertility rate among the francophone population. And their rate is currently not high enough to ensure continuation.

        This is true throughout Canada, but the rest of the country isn’t so preoccupied with language and culture preservation and so you don’t see as many articles along the lines of the one above.

  4. Language is less important than ideology.  Israel brought in Russian Jews, and to their horror, they imported socialism.  Quebec!  Carefully consider what makes a community.

  5. People know nothing about immigrants,I’m a first-generation Canadian of Persian descent,My parents were immigrants,I was born and raised here in Canada,my first language is English,that’s the first language I learned and it’s the only language I know how to speak fluently,English is the language which first-generation Canadians speak at home.

    I have an Indian friend,he’s first generation Canadian,he speaks English at home as fluently as any White Anglophone does,people think immigrants don’t integrate,but they do,or they think they don’t adopt the language of the country they live in.

    My girlfriend is Egyptian-Canadian,and she speaks English as her first language,people think she speaks Arabic at home,but she’s more fluent in English than Arabic.

    Quebec shouldn’t worry,immigrants will learn French,and the children of immigrants will speak French as fluent as any native Francophone,immigration is pretty new to Quebec,but 30 years from now when most of the immigrants will assimilate and and establish themselves as good as the Asians did in America,they will be grateful that they allowed immigrants to make Quebec a better place.

    • You are absolutely right (and the article wrong) that the language spoken at home  is NOT the language that children speak fluently.  In the US (where I am from) especially in the southwest (I am from southern california) about 40%  of the population is of Hispanic origin.  However, no one that I can think of, however much we spoke spanish at home, spoke Spanish as our primary language anywhere else.  English is our language.  Furthermore, as a linguist, I can say that the language that will be spoken by a child is the language used by their peers,not their parents or church groups etc 

  6. This comment was deleted.

    • 300 million? Given our total population is only 30-odd million, and the number you list is far closer to the entire population of the US than it is to Canada, I think you overstated your case just a tad.

  7. What many people are forgetting here is that immigrants, even those who move to Quebec, still want to participate in greater North American culture…and that means speaking English.  While they may learn French during their early years in Quebec, by and large, they will gravitate to English because it’s the international language and will only become more dominate with the rise of Inda and China, both of which are educating hundreds of millions of school children in the language.

  8. NEWS FLASH @ Phil King….You don’t have to be of French descent to identify with francophone culture.  Lots of people in Quebec are descendants of Irish, Italian, Portuguese, etc immigrants and they identify more with the francophone culture of QC, as opposed to the anglophone QC culture.  Many of these people are not even fluent in the language of their ancestors.  Culture is not solely based on geneology, it’s based on so many factors like what neighbourhood and with which people you grow up.

  9. This is CANADA and official language is ENGLISH.

    Official proof of citizenship and traveling document of this country is Canadian Passport.

    Money are called Canadian Dollars not Quebec pessos, drachmas or dineros.

    City Of Montreal flag is white with red heraldic cross of England. With Rose representing the English,Fleur-de-lis representing the French, Shamrock representing the Irish and Thistle representing the Scots.

    If you want more French bring french businesses from europe or create one yourself.
    Create french quebecoise Ford, Boeing,Lockheed Martin,sheraton,Best buy, Tim hortons,
    Boston pizza, Future shop, Best buy,Apple iphone, John deere, Carterpillar…etc
    Then you can francaise the whole world and people will speak your language or swahili for that matter in order to have a better income and life.
    Another words all businesses here are owned by American or Canadian corporations.
    Including FRANCOFOLIES sponsored by FORD, GM General Motors, TD Toronto Dominion and AMEX American Express.
    All you OQLF people do is translating English ideas and complaining.

    • 1. We actually have TWO official languages: English AND French.

      • Yes, and why would they call it pesos? They are french not Hispanics It would be nice for your to get to know a little bit of french culture before you criticize natasha.

  10. Quelle article de merde …..

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