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Blog > International > A clear picture facing the PQ mythology on the situation of the French language in Canada, by the Hon. Stéphane Dion
May 23

A clear picture facing the PQ mythology on the situation of the French language in Canada, by the Hon. Stéphane Dion

Does Bilingualism Have a Future in Canada?

Conference organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, in partnership with Concordia University, the University of Ottawa and the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism

McGill University, Montreal
May 1, 2021

The Honourable Stéphane Dion, P.C., M.P., Member of Parliament for Saint-Laurent - Cartierville
Liberal Critic for Official Languages, House of Commons, Ottawa

Does bilingualism have a future in Canada? Of course it does! Whether it will be optimal or fragmented remains to be seen. Are we going to make substantial improvements in our ability to speak our two official languages, or are we going to be satisfied with doing the minimum?

English-French bilingualism will remain a fundamental characteristic of Canada. It is not going to be replaced by another form of bilingualism. I will explain why.

I will then show how English-French bilingualism, after making progress in Canada, has been marking time recently. Lastly, I will discuss the reality of bilingualism in Quebec today.

1.    English-French bilingualism will remain a fundamental characteristic of Canada

Whatever happens, English and French will remain the two languages of choice in Canada. They are part and parcel of our past, and they will shape our future.
The fact that one of these languages is English presents two challenges for us; but in another way, it makes things easier. The first challenge is the power of assimilation that English exercises over Canadian francophones in a continent that is predominantly English-speaking. The second challenge is that it is difficult to motivate an anglophone population to learn another language in a world where English is the ideal lingua franca.

However, having English as one of our official languages also gives us a huge advantage: we are in no danger of seeing some other, non-official language asserting itself as the language of communication between our two linguistic communities. In Switzerland, German- and French-speaking young people are using English increasingly to communicate with each other.

French, as an official language of Canada but also an international language, is a logical choice as a second language for English-speaking Canadians. French has more appeal for them than another, less widely used official language would – such as Flemish in Belgium.

Moreover, French is not too difficult for an anglophone to learn. Shortly after my appointment in the early 2000s as the federal Minister responsible for official languages, I was assured that Mandarin was about to replace French as the second language most widely studied by students in British Columbia. I thereupon hastened to tour French immersion schools in that province, and – surprise! – I met numbers of young Canadians of Chinese origin who spoke excellent French. French immersion schools are now so popular in British Columbia that lotteries are sometimes held to assign the available spaces. You really have to get up early to learn Mandarin as a second language!

The fact is that no language threatens the status of French as the second most widely spoken language in Canada after English. Admittedly, our country is increasingly multicultural, and therefore multilingual, but the allophone group is very heterogeneous, with over two hundred mother tongues. According to the 2011 Census, English is the mother tongue of 57.8% of Canadians and French is the mother tongue of 21.7%. In a distant third place is Punjabi, the mother tongue of just 1.4% of Canada’s population.

It is true that Spanish has gained ground since the signing of NAFTA but not to the point that it threatens the status of French as Canada’s second best known language. According to the 2011 census, 2.7 per cent of Canadians know Spanish and 30.1 per cent, French. Outside of Quebec, 2.1 per cent know Spanish and 10.2 per cent, French.

One crucial challenge will be to help the 235,000 or so immigrants who come to Canada every year to learn both official languages. A great many of them wish to do so.
Newcomers to Canada show a strong interest in learning both official languages. According to the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers, children of immigrants do very well in French immersion programs and often achieve better results than Canadian-born anglophones.  According to a study by Canadian Parents for French, the majority of allophone parents believe that learning both of Canada’s official languages would be an asset for their children.

That is certainly consistent with what I find in my own riding of Saint-Laurent–Cartierville. Almost all the young allophones I meet are trilingual: they speak their mother tongue, English and French. There is no evidence that Canada’s growing multicultural heterogeneity threatens official bilingualism. On the contrary, there is every indication that the two main components of our diversity can coexist quite happily, and can even merge with one another.

Canada’s two official languages will therefore continue to reflect the country’s reality, but how many of us will be speaking both of them? Canada is and will remain a country with two official languages, agreed, but to what extent will its population be bilingual?

2.    The progress of bilingualism in Canada

According to the 2011 Census, the proportion of Canadians able to conduct a conversation in both official languages is 17.5%. The most bilingual Canadians are francophones outside Quebec (83.6%), followed by anglophones in Quebec (68.9%), allophones in Quebec (50.2%), francophones in Quebec (35.8%), anglophones outside Quebec (7.4%) and allophones outside Quebec (5.6%).

Is bilingualism making progress in Canada? In 1971, 13.5% of Canadians spoke both English and French. In 1996, the rate of bilingualism reached 17%. Since then, it has been marking time.

True, we have made remarkable progress over the last fifty years, which means – as the organizers of this conference remind us – since the establishment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Looking at the last decade only, however, we see that in some respects we are no longer making progress. We have to realize this, admit it and summon up fresh energy.

In Quebec, the greatest progress over the last fifty years has been the massive surge in French learning by non-francophones. In 1963, who would have imagined that in 2013, Quebec’s anglophones would be the most bilingual population in Canada – second only to out-of-Quebec francophones? That almost 95% of anglophone Quebeckers aged 21 or younger would be bilingual? That the massive linguistic transfers of immigrants towards English, so prevalent in Quebec in 1963, would be more oriented toward French in 2013?
In 1963, and even up to 1990, the francophone minorities outside Quebec (except in New Brunswick and a few schools in Ontario) did not manage their own education systems.

Nowadays, there are francophone school management structures in all the provinces and territories and these structures are linked to a network of francophone high schools, colleges and universities. Nothing like this could have been hoped for in 1963.

Who could have predicted the extraordinary enthusiasm for French immersion schools in provinces with an English-speaking majority? According to the 2011 Census, such schools have an enrolment of at least 329,000!

Progress of this kind does not just happen. We had to make choices together, some of them difficult and many perceived as contradictory.

Sure, the Official Languages Act and Bill 101, or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Charter of the French Language might well have different sources of inspiration; but these measures – notwithstanding what their respective supporters might think – do complement one another. They have helped us make linguistic progress on every front.

3.    Progress has levelled off in recent years

To gain a better idea of the challenges ahead of us, however, let us take stock of the last few years. According to the most recent Census, the proportion of Canadians able to conduct a conversation in both official languages barely changed between 2006 and 2011: from 17.4% of the population to 17.5%.

In terms of knowledge of French, we have also levelled off: in 2006, 30.7% of Canada’s population could conduct a conversation in French, as compared with 30.1% in 2011.

In Quebec, the rate of English-French bilingualism rose from 40.6% in 2006 to 42.6% in 2011. Elsewhere in Canada, it fell from 10.8% in 2006 to 10.2% in 2011.

The most worrying drop was among young anglophones living outside Quebec: “The proportion of these youth able to conduct a conversation in both of the country’s official languages was 15.2% in 1996. It has decreased steadily since then to 11.2% in 2011, a decline of 4 percentage points. Despite a rise in (…) immersion program registrations, the proportion of young people outside Quebec exposed to the instruction of French as a second language over the past 20 years has decreased from 53.3% to 44%.”

This means that outside Quebec, where enrolment in French immersion schools rose by 23% between 1991 and 2011, the increase was more than offset by a 23% drop in enrolment in regular French-as-a-second-language programs.

This net decrease may be the downside of the popularity of immersion schools. Parents and students with the strongest motivation to learn French rush to them, so that there is less pressure to maintain the learning of French in other schools. Solving this problem is a priority. The Council of Ministers of Education will have to find solutions, and indicate how the federal government can help.

In this regard, it would be advisable to consult the French-speaking communities outside Quebec, who make up 4.3% of the population outside Quebec.  Their advice would be invaluable, because they have direct experience of the bilingualization of anglophones. For them, expansion of the French-language space is a result of the integration of numerous anglophones into their communities.

Indeed, many young francophones are forming exogamous couples with anglophones, getting married and starting families. At least two-thirds of francophone children outside Quebec are growing up in families in which one of the parents does not have French as their mother tongue. This is the main challenge facing the future of the French language and communities in Canada. Outside Quebec, the transmission of French to the children reaches a rate of 95% when both parents are francophone, but only 42% when only one parent speaks French. However, the rate goes up to 70% when the non-francophone parent also speaks French.

4.    Bilingualism in Quebec today

I would say that in Quebec, we still have to convince ourselves that we have nothing to fear from bilingualism. To those who claim that it constitutes a serious threat to French, I would answer: Of course we have to stay vigilant, but there is every indication that the French fact is doing well in Quebec: bilingualism poses no threat to the language of Gilles Vigneault!

According to the most recent census,  94.4% of Quebeckers can speak French, 87% of them speak it most often (82.5%) or regularly (4.5%) at home, 89% speak it most of the time at work (according to the Office de la langue française), and these percentages have changed very little in recent years. In 1951, Quebeckers whose mother tongue was English constituted 14% of the population; the figure today is 8%. In 2001, language transfers by allophones were 34.7% towards French and 34.0% towards English; today, the figures are 40.0% towards French and 29.9% towards English.

Among the newcomers who settle in Quebec, French is the most known language at time of arrival: 57.9% speak French, 50.9% English and 24.9% neither English nor French.

Admittedly, the percentage of residents who speak only French at home is decreasing in Greater Montreal: in 2001, it was 62.4%; in 2006, 59.8%; and in 2011, 56.5%. There is an explanation for these figures, however: more and more Montreal families speak French and another language: 13.0% in 2001; 15.6% in 2006; and 18.2% in 2011.  Montreal, as a great metropolis, experiences growing cultural diversity, intermingling populations and exogamy. It is not that francophones are abandoning French, but they are falling in love with non-francophones! No harm in that, right? On the contrary!

In Quebec, Bill 101 provides very strong protection for the French language; this eliminates the need for any measure designed to restrict the use of English unduly. There is no need to eliminate the bilingual status of municipalities where the proportion of anglophones has fallen below 50%; nor to prevent young francophones from attending an English-language cégep even when they have the necessary grades. Far from serving the cause of French, punitive and fear-driven measures like this can only harm the cause of bilingualism in Quebec.

Bill 101 is far from weakened by the Supreme Court. On the contrary, I would say that Supreme Court decisions have made it more realistic and more acceptable, even to francophones. No survey indicates that a majority of Quebeckers are or were in favour of unilingual signage. It is reasonable and sensible for French to be mandatory, and even dominant, in order to better protect French in the North American context. But what is the point of banning other languages? Like the Supreme Court, Quebeckers are against such an attitude.
Consider the recent Quebec “bridge schools” controversy. The Supreme Court ruling did nothing to allow such schools. The Court simply asked the Quebec government to treat each and every case on its own merits in order to avert unfair situations. In response, the Quebec government enacted legislation that limited, to a few per year, the number of students who can take that route to access the anglophone school system.


As we can see, we can do more and do better to promote the learning of our two official languages. We must do a better job of exploiting the advantage we gain from the international reach of our two official languages. They open many doors and windows on the world for us, leading to a many-faceted cultural, scientific and economic universe in which we obviously have everything to gain by becoming full participants.

Bilingualism is one of our best assets. Canada is one of the few countries whose people can use two official languages of international stature in their everyday lives. We should love them, learn them and use them, in order to derive the greatest possible benefit from them.

1 comment

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