Linguistic Peace: A Time to Take Stock: The Language Situation in Canada and Quebec

By Cardinal, Linda | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Linguistic Peace: A Time to Take Stock: The Language Situation in Canada and Quebec


Cardinal, Linda, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


Statistics Canada's release of 2006 census data on language brought forth a number of reactions, particularly in Quebec. English-speaking Canada seems less given to linguistic anguish than French-speaking Canada, but it would be a mistake to underestimate its diversity of existing languages and potential interest in better understanding the language behaviour of immigrants.

Despite the occasional feverishness of the Canadian language debate, the game, since the publication of 2006 census data, has been to present the most reasonable or measured reading possible, especially as concerns the future of French in Quebec. Although this might appear normal, anyone acquainted with Statistics Canada's tendency to embellish the situation or not call a spade a spade should welcome such a reasoned debate. The release of census data coincides with the appearance of a number of studies undertaken by the Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise (OQLF) aimed at presenting a detailed picture of Quebecers' long-term language behaviour. These studies, coupled with Statistics Canada data, also make it possible to assess the effectiveness of the paradigm that for more than 30 years has guided efforts at dealing with language in Quebec and in Canada as a whole. Thus, in the absence of a language crisis in the country, Canadians can measure the progress achieved, highlight the grey areas and identify zones for future intervention.

Understood this way, the current language debate is not an invitation to governments to retreat into indifference and leave citizens to try to figure out the situation. All states, even the most liberal--think of the United States--intervene in the field of language. Canada, for its part, recognizes that language is one of its fundamental characteristics and that it has obligations toward its two official languages, while encouraging the learning of other languages in line with its commitment to multiculturalism. This means that we must take seriously what the 2006 data and the various studies published so far have revealed about the Canadian linguistic landscape--with care, they can be useful in forming language policies.

A portrait of languages in Canada

What can we conclude about the state of official languages in the country? Is French doing well in Quebec? What about bilingualism and French in the rest of the country? What can we say about nonofficial languages in multicultural Canada?

Canada certainly has two official languages, French and English, and that doesn't seem likely to change soon. However, Statistics Canada's 2006 census data force us to recognize two phenomena: the growth of inequality between the official language groups and the rise of nonofficial languages. French as a mother tongue continues to decline in Canada, falling from 23.5 per cent in 1996 to 22.1 per cent in 2006. English as a mother tongue has also shrunk, from 59.8 per cent in 1996 to 59.1 per cent in 2001 and 57.8 per cent in 2006. However, this situation does not generate language insecurity among the anglophone majority as it does among francophones.

At the same time, the number of allophones and other users of languages other than French and English has increased significantly. Of the 1.1 million immigrants who arrived in Canada from 2001 to 2006, 81 per cent have a mother tongue other than French or English--notably Chinese, Punjabi, Spanish, Arabic, Tagalog and Urdu. This growth and linguistic diversity makes itself felt particularly in metropolitan areas, especially Montreal, where 22 per cent of the population has a mother tongue other than French or English; Toronto, where allophones constitute 44 per cent; and Vancouver, where they represent 41 per cent. Italian, Arabic and Spanish are the leading languages among Montreal's allophones; Chinese, Italian and Punjabi dominate in Toronto; while in Vancouver it's Chinese, Punjabi and Tagalog. For the first time, we are seeing increased numbers of immigrants in middle-sized urban centres such as Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

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