Getting the Facts Straight on French: Reflections Following the 1996 Census

By Castonguay, Charles | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Getting the Facts Straight on French: Reflections Following the 1996 Census


Castonguay, Charles, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


ABSTRACT

OFFICIAL COMMENTATORS IN Ottawa have consistently interpreted census data on the status of French optimistically, implying that francophone concerns for linguistic survival are misplaced and that Canadian language policy is successful. This article is a rigorous rebuttal to Ottawa's optimism.

Analyzing census data from 1961 up to 1996, Castonguay finds that the prospects for French are "disquieting in Quebec and New Brunswick, and disastrous in the remaining provinces." Ottawa's language policy is not protecting francophones outside Quebec from assimilation to English, and their numbers are dwindling. By contrast, Quebec's language laws have had some success: they have increased assimilation to French among allophone immigrants, though not enough to forestall a coming decline in francophone numbers within Quebec itself. Castonguay concludes that Ottawa must readjust its policy along territorial lines to further enhance the assimilating power of French in Quebec.

NO DURABLE UNDERSTANDING between English and French Canadians can come about without first getting the facts straight on language. This article is an attempt to do that, using census data through 1996.

An appropriate point of departure is the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (the "B&B Commission") which in the 1960s researched the status of Canada's two principal language groups. Its findings, based largely on the 1961 census, subsequently determined major aspects of Canadian language policy.

The commission's most fundamental decision in this respect was to reject what it called the "territorial principle" adopted by countries such as Switzerland and India. Under this principle, jurisdiction over most aspects of language use is devolved to regional governments with the full expectation that they adopt divergent policies reflecting the interests of the local majority language community. This principle still requires language communities to effect a workable compromise applicable to national institutions and also to define some set of minority-language services.

Since the 1970s, Quebec governments -- both federalist and sovereigntist -- have de facto insisted that the territorial principle apply within Canada. The preamble to Bill 101, for example, explicitly states a commitment to promote French within the provincial territory:

The National Assembly of Quebec recognizes that Quebecers wish to see the quality and influence of the French language assured, and is resolved therefore to make of French the language of Government and the law, as well as the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.

In rejecting the "territorial principle," the commission opted instead for what it defined as the "personality principle." Under this alternate principle, language rights adhere to individuals, not to territories. Ottawa should, the commission recommended, recognize the formal equality of Canada's two official languages within federal jurisdiction and promote English-French bilingualism across the country.

Under the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act), Quebec is required to conform to a number of bilingual provisions. The commission recommended that Ontario and New Brunswick, home to the great majority of francophones living outside Quebec, accept similar bilingual obligations. It allowed some deviation from the personality principle inasmuch as the remaining seven provinces (other than Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick) need accord lesser rights to their official-language minorities.

The report of the B&B Commission was the intellectual foundation for the Official Languages Act and the language provisions (sections 16 through 23) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. By insisting on individual language rights as the basis for policy, the commission has gradually led Ottawa's language policy to focus on official-language minority communities: on the promotion of English in Quebec and French elsewhere. …

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