French Still An Abstraction In Much Of Canada

French still an abstraction in much of Canada

Chantal Hert (Hebert)
Dec 05, 2007 04:30 AM

OTTAWA—Connect the dots between the 2006 census numbers on language and immigration released yesterday and what you get is an increasingly diverse French Quebec within a diverse but increasingly English Canada.

That's positive news for the Canadian policy of multiculturalism but it's bad news for those who dream of the day when Canada is done with its two solitudes, for the space where French and English cohabit is inexorably shrinking.

First the good news. The numbers show that multiculturalism does not foster language ghettos. Even as a record one in five Canadians were born in another country, nine out of 10 use either English or French at home. In big cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, where the bulk of new arrivals settle, it is only a marginal proportion that does not adopt one of Canada's official languages.

The census also shows that Quebec's language policies work. Immigrants to the province are increasingly choosing to live in French, although hardly in the same numbers as newcomers elsewhere in Canada adopt English.

Between 1996 and 2006, Quebec recorded an unprecedented 25-per-cent increase in its immigration. While the proportion of francophones went down slightly, for the first time ever more newcomers to the province adopted French rather than English as their default language. In 10 years, their proportion went from 39 per cent to 51 per cent. Part of the reason is that Quebec has a say in the selection of its immigrants, with extra points given to francophone applicants.

But with an influx of francophone immigrants has also come the realization that having a common language does not automatically iron out differences. In Quebec, as in the rest of Canada, integration not language is currently the biggest challenge posed by immigration.

That may ultimately be resolved more easily than the other challenge brought to light by the census. The federal glue that was meant to bind the francophone and anglophone regions of the country is drying up.

On the basis of the 2006 numbers, Quebec's status as a French-language society is not in peril, or at least not in the foreseeable future. Nor is French in danger of losing its place as Canada's second language anytime soon.

Chinese the third most spoken language after English and French is used by only 3 per cent of Canadians. By comparison, 22 per cent speak French.

But outside Quebec, francophones make up only 4 per cent of the population.

With French an abstraction in so many parts of Canada, the motivation to learn it as a second language is decreasing. Because most anglophones learn French at school, the peak bilingualism rate for anglophones outside Quebec occurs in the 15 to 19 age range. Over the past decade, it has slipped from 16.3 per cent to 13 per cent.

The census also shows the retention rate of anglophones who have learned the language is slipping.

From a public policy perspective, those particular sets of numbers are by far the most ominous of the figures released yesterday, for they reflect a trend that stands to make the language policies of the federal government unsustainable.

Without a critical mass of bilingual anglophones, the long-term prospects for official bilingualism are poor. But the alternative of doing away with a policy that the vast majority of Canadians have come to see as a defining national feature is more than problematic.

Chantal Hert's (Hebert's) national affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.