Proportion of Quebecers who speak French at home on the decline: StatsCan

Proportion of Quebecers who speak French at home on the decline: StatsCan thumbnail

“I’m scratching my head,” says Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies. He calls the report “misleading” and some of the analysis “amateurish.”

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Aug 17, 2022  •  30 minutes ago  •  6 minute read  •  17 Comments

Flags at Montreal city hall in 2018.
Flags at Montreal city hall in 2018. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

More Quebecers are speaking French at home but their proportion of the overall provincial population is decreasing.

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For the first time, the number of people in Quebec whose first official language spoken is English topped one million, with their proportion of the population rising.

And English-French bilingualism is rising in Quebec, but declining outside the province.

Those are among the findings of the 2021 census, whose language results were made public by Statistics Canada on Wednesday morning.

The census measures the size, evolution and composition of language groups in Canada.

In addition to providing a detailed portrait of how Canadians communicate, results are used by governments to administer the federal Official Languages Act and Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.

“It’s highly likely that it’s related to migration factors,” Éric Caron-Malenfant of Statistics Canada said of the increase in the proportion of Quebecers whose first official language spoken is English.

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Statistics Canada derives first-official-language figures based on questions about knowledge of official languages, language spoken most often at home and mother tongue.

To explain the linguistic changes, Caron-Malenfant noted other data sources indicate the number of non-permanent residents has risen considerably in Quebec since 2016. In addition, there was a decline in the number of Quebecers leaving the province for other parts of Canada.

Historically, English-speaking people are overrepresented in Quebec’s interprovincial migratory movements, said Caron-Malenfant, assistant director of the agency’s demography centre.

Statistics Canada also pointed out that Quebec’s English-speaking population is younger on average than the French-speaking population (and therefore has proportionally fewer deaths).

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A prominent researcher said Wednesday’s Statistics Canada report is “misleading” and some of the analysis “amateurish.”

“I’m really surprised at some of StatsCan’s interpretation of this. I’m scratching my head,” Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, told the Montreal Gazette.

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He said the agency implies “French is in freefall while English is going really well” in Quebec.

But Jedwab noted that on the French side, in one section of its report, Statistics Canada focused on French as mother tongue, while on the English side, two groups were lumped together — people who have English as their sole mother tongue and those who provided multiple mother tongues.

“They’re giving the impression that the gain (among English speakers) is much bigger than it is,” Jedwab said. “They seem to spin it in a way that is very, very negative for French.” Adding multiple mother tongues to the French-speaking tally would significantly alter the picture, he added.

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Jedwab also noted that Statistics Canada focuses heavily on the island of Montreal. In the past, the agency has acknowledged that focusing on the island distorts the real dynamics that prevail in the Montreal region.

“You’re including in (Montreal Island), Baie-D’Urfé, Pointe-Claire, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, which are 30 kilometres away from (downtown Montreal), but you’re not including the South Shore, which is only a few kilometres away. Why would you do that? That’s a very artificial selection of a geography.”

The focus should be on the metropolitan region, Jedwab said.

Focusing only on Montreal Island accentuates the impression that French is in steep decline, Jedwab said.

Statistics Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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In the report, the agency said the census found:

  • The number of people who spoke predominantly French at home increased from 6.4 million in 2016 to 6.5 million in 2021 in Quebec, but their proportion of the population fell from 79 per cent to 77.5 per cent.
  • While the number of people in Quebec with French as their mother tongue rose between 2016 and 2021, their proportion in Quebec’s population decreased from 77.1 per cent to 74.8 per cent.
  • The number of people in Quebec whose first official language spoken is English surpassed one million and is now 1,088,820. Their proportion of the population rose from 12 per cent in 2016 to 13 per cent in 2021. That’s about the same level as in 1981.
  • From 2016 to 2021, the proportion of Quebec’s population whose sole mother tongue is English was relatively stable (from 7.5 per cent in 2016 to 7.6 per cent in 2021), but the number of speakers rose by 38,000, to 639,000.
  • Accounting for all Quebecers with English as their sole mother tongue or together with another language, the gain is much bigger (an increase of 125,000). This is driven by an increase in the number of individuals who reported both English and French as their mother tongues.
  • Almost one in five people in Quebec (19.2 per cent) spoke English at home at least on a regular basis, more than half of whom spoke it along with French, another language, or French and another language.
  • The number of people who spoke predominantly English at home (874,000 in 2021) accounted for 10.4 per cent of the Quebec population, up from 9.7 per cent in 2016.
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The opposition Parti Québécois was quick to react to the census figures.

Premier François Legault’s “half-measures will not reverse the decline of French,” the party said on Twitter. “Demographers and statisticians confirm it.”

The party said it has “the courage to act for the language of Félix Leclerc,” adding it wants Bill 101 to be applied to CEGEPs and all new immigrants to be French-speaking.

The latest numbers will provide political fodder in the Oct. 3 Quebec general election, expected to be formally called at the end of the month.

Always a subject of intense debate in Quebec, the language issue is under the microscope because of the Coalition Avenir Québec’s Bill 96. Adopted in May, it was the biggest overhaul of Quebec language rules since the advent of Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, in 1977.

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Bill 96 further restricts the use of English in Quebec in a bid to boost the French language.

Anglophone rights groups describe the law as draconian, pointing to wide-ranging changes that could touch many aspects of daily life, from medical care to how businesses operate to the workings of the court system.

Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government says the new measures are long overdue, arguing French is in decline in Quebec, both in workplaces and in homes.

Other census findings

  • In 2021, Canada’s English-French bilingualism rate was 18 per cent, compared with its previous peak in 2016 (17.9 per cent).
  • Meanwhile, in Quebec, the proportion of bilingual English-French individuals rose to 46.4 per cent, from 44.5 in 2016. The rate of English-French bilingualism has risen steadily in Quebec for decades. It was at 25.5 per cent in 1961.
  • In Quebec, nearly one in two individuals with a non-official mother tongue (47.9 per cent) spoke French at home at least on a regular basis in 2021, while 37.5 per cent spoke English.
  • From 2016 to 2021, the proportion of individuals with a non-official mother tongue living in Quebec speaking predominantly French at home rose slightly (from 18.8 per cent to 20.1 per cent), while the proportion who spoke predominantly English at home remained relatively stable over the period.
  • Canada’s linguistic diversity continues to grow. Immigration drove up the number of Canadians who spoke predominantly a language other than English or French at home, from 4 million in 2016 to 4.6 million in 2021.
  • English was the first official language spoken by 75.5 per cent of the population, up from 74.8 per cent in 2016, while French was the first official language spoken by 21.4 per cent of Canadians in 2021, down from 22.2 per cent in 2016.
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This story will be updated.

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