A Minority On The Island

A minority on the island
Proportion of francophones is now 49.8% because of more immigrants, low birth rate

The Gazette
Published: Wednesday, December 05

Francophones are now a minority on Montreal Island.

It's a symbolic change, but does it mean the end of the French language is nigh?

Groups that want to toughen Quebec's language laws seized on the statistic as proof French is in decline and should be bolstered.

But demographers say it was only a matter of time before that threshold was crossed, and they point to other figures indicating French is on the upswing.

The proportion of francophones on Montreal Island was 49.8 per cent in 2006, down from 53.2 per cent five years earlier, according to 2006 census data.

“It's not surprising, it's not worrying, that francophones are now a minority on the island,” said Victor Pich, a Universit de Montral demographer.

Quebec is attracting a growing number of immigrants, and the vast majority of them settle on Montreal Island, he noted. In the meantime, Quebec francophones have a low birth rate and a growing number are moving to suburbs around Montreal.

“The concept of 'the island' is artificial,” Pich said. “Francophones have left Montreal Island, but they come back every day to study and work. Look at the bridges – they're packed.

“It's not as if there's a Berlin Wall around the island.”

Francophones still form the majority of residents in the Montreal census metropolitan area, a region of 3.6 million people that includes suburbs around the island. In the region, francophones made up 65.2 per cent of the population in 2006, down from 68.3 per cent in 2001.

The census shows most allophones now are shifting to French rather than English, Pich said. That indicates Quebec government policies to promote French – compelling immigrants to send their children to French school, teaching French to immigrants and ensuring French is used in the workplace – are working, he said.

Jack Jedwab, who tracks demographic changes as executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, said language hard-liners incorrectly predicted francophone minority status on the island would lead to a decline in allophones adopting French.

“The bottom line is, Quebec needs immigrants, overwhelmingly the immigration is allophone, and they happen to settle in the island of Montreal – but they're choosing French,” he said.

Language shift “is a generational process. Immigrants don't switch to French in the home in the short term. It's a medium- to longer-term process.”