The dénouement of French Canada

Immigration is changing Canada. The country is bigger and richer than it would otherwise have been. But the biggest changes are probably yet to be felt.

samedi 11 février 2012

The recently released results from the 2011 Canadian census read very different in French and English.

In English, the census tells a story of growth and prosperity. In French, the census announces the decline of Quebec’s standing in Confederation — and of the French language’s place in North America.

Lester Pearson predicted that he would be the last Canadian prime minister to speak only English. To date, his prediction has held true. But not for much longer, by the looks of things.

The 2001 and 2006 Censuses showed sharp declines in the relative size of the population that claimed French as a “mother tongue,” down to barely more than one-fifth.

The statistics tell only part of the story. A 35-year-old Québécois who moves to Alberta in search of work, and there meets and marries a girl from a Chinese immigrant background, will probably bolster the national statistics for “French as mother tongue” sometime into the 2060s. But he won’t be speaking French at work. He probably won’t be speaking very much French at home. And it’s even more doubtful that his children and grandchildren will report French as their “mother tongue.”

I’m not inventing a hypothetical scenario here. In only five years, 2006-2011, Quebec experienced a net out-migration of 50,000. They weren’t all native French-speakers of course. But many were.

An old joke holds that nothing should be taken as true until it has been officially denied. The report of the commissioner of official languages after the 2006 Census offers a fine example of that rule at work :

Myth : In Canada, French is bound to lose its place as second language to Mandarin or Spanish.

Reality : More than one in five Canadians state that French is their mother tongue, making it the second most spoken language in Canada. In fact, there are almost one million speakers whose mother tongue is French and who live outside Quebec … All Canadians are in a position to acquire knowledge of both official languages. … According to data from the 2006 census, only 20% of the entire Canadian population has a mother tongue that is neither English nor French.

Read between the numbers here : French is on the verge of dropping below the 20% threshold. Already in 2006, it was true that the proportion of Canadians who were born speaking neither French nor English was very nearly equal to the number who spoke French.

No, there is probably no one single language that is likely to overtake French. But English’s margin is bound to grow and grow — and Quebec’s clout in Canada is bound to dwindle even further.

We can see in the 2011 census that the combined population of the four westernmost provinces will, for the first time, exceed the combined population of Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

The federal civil service may for some long time to come continue to demand bilingualism (or anyway a certificate of bilingualism) as a requirement for promotion to the highest ranks. Civil services are conservative institutions : Deep into the 1950s, the British civil service favored applicants who had studied Latin and Greek.

Political systems are less conservative. If there are more votes to be won in British Columbia by speaking Urdu or Hakka as a second language, then the politicians who win election will speak Urdu and Hakka.

Sooner or later, one of those politicians will aspire to be prime minister. Sooner or later, one will win. It’s already true that a government can put together a parliamentary majority without representation in French Quebec. Canadians still vaguely feel that winning in such a way is improper. But will their children ?

And by the way, it’s not only francophones whose position in Canada will be diminished by the wave of immigration. Aboriginal peoples will also see their relative standing shrink in the years and decades ahead, high birth rates notwithstanding. Will the emerging Canada continue indefinitely to pay the demands that have been paid over the past two decades ? It seems unlikely.

Immigration is changing Canada. The country is bigger and richer than it would otherwise have been. But the biggest changes are probably yet to be felt.

(c) David Frum


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