Quebec Community Groups Network Policy Forum (QCGN) Official Languages Tracking Survey Remarks
Montreal, Quebec -
Raymond Théberge - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Introduction: the ongoing situation
As I am addressing you from Winnipeg, I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am currently on a Treaty 1 territory and that the land is the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.
To begin, I’d like to thank QCGN for the invitation to speak with you today about the recent public opinion research on Official Languages that my office conducted with Environics. QCGN has been conducting some impressive policy work of late which has led to this conference. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank your outgoing President, Marlene Jennings for her dedicated and tireless work on your behalf. It has always been a great pleasure to discuss and work with her.
I’d like to open with a quote from that great Canadian poet and English-speaking Quebecer, Leonard Cohen. It’s a quote about belonging – that challenge of finding your place as a member of a minority community, in a society like that of Canada, and of Quebec, the former being officially bilingual, the latter being officially unilingual, and both being increasingly multicultural:
“I live in Montreal, which is a French city, in Quebec, which is a French country…. I live as a minority writer, almost in exile…. These are very special Canadian problems, which to me form the Canadian character, because we’re very much involved in this notion of what is minority and what is majority; and yet while these questions are in the air, it seems that everybody has space. Because we don’t have the melting-pot notion at all in Canada, we have a federal system that runs right down into the psyche of the country.”
As Cohen reminds us, these inherent characteristics of our society need not be seen as incompatible – even though, at times like today, it may seem that way. Rather, I would argue that these characteristics are part of the dynamic pressure that makes ours a fascinating and vibrant, if at times argumentative, country to live in. That’s what the results I will present to you tend to show.
It seems to me that it’s not exactly easy to be an Anglo-Quebecer these days. Recent discourse around language rights raised valid concerns, in light of Quebec’s Bill 96 and Ottawa’s Bill C-13. Some have discussed these concerns with me, and I take those seriously.
Taking the pulse of the average Canadian, including the average Quebecer, as we have done with our own public opinion research, is relevant to these discussions.
The overall survey results
Indeed, our survey of 3,000 Canadians, conducted by telephone and online in September and October of last year, shows that the national consensus in favour of our two official languages has held. The naysayers, although loud and never shy about sharing their negative views, clearly do not speak for any one particular group or region.
For clarity, I’ll be referencing the telephone survey results, unless stated otherwise. Also, I’ll be using the terms “Anglophone” and “Francophone” throughout this speech, to refer loosely to those who have one language or the other as their primary official language (and not necessarily as their mother tongue). It was in this vein that the great Frank Scott, himself an English-speaking Quebecer, used the term “Anglophone”. It is also closer to the definition the federal government uses when assessing the needs of linguistic minorities.
On to the survey results now.
In the telephone survey, which was a random probability survey with a 2.5% margin of error, support for the objectives of the Official Languages Act was over 80% among:
- English, French and other mother-tongue populations;
- younger and older adults;
- racialized groups;
- people born in and outside of Canada; and among
- Western Canadians, Ontarians, Atlantic Canadians and, most notably, Quebecers.
The results nationally, at 87%, were virtually unchanged from what they were five years ago, when it stood at 88%.
We have experienced a lot of things in the last half decade: a creeping populist majoritarian discourse, a proliferation of disinformation on social media undermining trust in academia, journalism, science and government. A once-in-a-century global pandemic that has stretched the patience and tolerance of us all. Despite all of this, an overwhelming majority continues to support Canadian bilingualism, one of the core principles that lie at the heart of Canadian diversity, inclusiveness and human rights.
The survey also found that support for official languages is consistent with support for other forms of diversity. Too often we read commentary that reduces diversity to a “zero-sum game,” weighing different minorities against each other – not for the purposes of expanding language rights, but rather to roll them back.
This is why I’m encouraged that our respondents see linguistic duality and diversity as complementary rather than opposite. For instance, most agree that having two official languages sends the signal that we value linguistic diversity, makes Canada a welcoming place for immigrants, and enhances the multicultural reality of our country.
Significantly, support for these ideas was similarly high among Anglophones and Francophones, and among Canadians who were themselves of diverse backgrounds, including visible minorities, immigrants, and those with a mother tongue other than English or French.
Perhaps most encouragingly in the context of reconciliation, 78% agreed that Canada can and should promote both official languages and Indigenous languages at the same time.
The survey results for Quebec
Throughout the survey, Quebecers stood out in their strong levels of support for federal bilingualism, in their rates of individual bilingualism, in their support for second-language education - and, significantly, in their support for official-language minorities too.
This may come as a bit of a surprise to some of us. But again, we must not take for granted that the loud and angry few speak for the quiet, moderate majority.
Taking a closer look at the results among Quebecers, support for the Official Languages Act was extremely high, at 95%, which was even higher than in 2016, at 92%.
Why is this? Why do Quebecers continue to be such strong supporters of federal official bilingualism? Surveys don’t always ask people “why”, but allow me to engage in some speculation.
Perhaps, first of all, it is because of the minority situation facing both official language groups in Quebec.
Francophone Quebecers form part of a pan-Canadian minority and are understandably anxious for their language to be protected and promoted in Canada as a whole, including in Quebec.
And Anglophone Quebecers, who constitute a minority within the province itself, may look to the federal level in particular to help protect and affirm their minority language rights.
And perhaps, secondly, that it is because of the high level of individual bilingualism among Quebecers, and the extent to which they encounter the other official language.
The survey showed that Quebec has by far the highest percentage of bilingual individuals. Quebecers were also far more likely than other Canadians surveyed to consume media and cultural products in their second official language, to encounter people who speak the other language, and to live in a highly bilingual community.
Our survey also suggests that the Canadian identity of Quebecers is strongly informed by the fact that our country has two official languages. For example:
- 86% of Quebecers agreed that “Having two official languages is one of the things that really defines Canada,” the highest percentage in any region studied.
- 90% of Quebecers – again, higher than anywhere else in Canada – agreed that “Because English and French are part of our history, it makes sense that they have equal status.”
- Finally, 94% of Quebecers agreed that “Having two official languages is positive for Canada’s international image.”
Like all Canadians, Quebecers remain highly supportive of second-language education. In fact, more than the population of any other region that we studied, Quebecers agreed that:
- “More efforts should be made so that young people become bilingual and can speak in both English and French”, at 96%.
- “English and French should continue to be taught in elementary schools across Canada”, at 98%.
- and that “Provincial/territorial governments should make more spaces available in immersion programs”, at 87%.
To me, this would suggest that many Quebecers do not necessarily see as incompatible the protection of French in their own province on the one hand, and the fostering of individual bilingualism on the other, certainly not when it comes to their own children. In Canada as a whole, 76% of parents of school-aged children (in the online survey) said that it was important to them that their kids have the opportunity to learn their second official language. Among the Quebec parents surveyed, it was 99%. Ninety-nine percent! It doesn’t get much higher than that.
Then again, this may reflect some Francophone Quebecers’ anxieties about the future of French as much as it does their interest in their children becoming bilingual – 89% of Quebecers said that being bilingual constituted a “major advantage” when it came to employment opportunities, which was well above the national average of 67%. It’s one thing to want your child to become bilingual for cultural enrichment, but it’s another to wish it when concerned that without it, they cannot succeed.
But while they displayed significant support for federal institutional bilingualism and for second language education, Quebecers also demonstrated noteworthy support for the English-speaking minority.
Indeed, 90% of Quebecers agreed that children from the Anglophone minority community in their province should be guaranteed the same quality of education as children from the Francophone majority, even “if it takes more resources per student.” This was higher than in any other region we studied.
Quebecers also demonstrate a healthy curiosity in learning firsthand about the “Other.” When asked whether they would have liked to participate in a school-based language exchange program to interact with young people from the other official language community, 69% (in the online survey) responded “yes.”
And finally, and perhaps, most significantly, 65% of Quebecers agreed that more support is needed for the Anglophone minority communities inside the province. To be sure, this may not constitute overwhelming support, but it is a clear majority nonetheless. It’s a large survey and I’m only skimming the surface here. A lot more data is available on our website.
In conclusion, while the months ahead may prove challenging for Quebec’s English-speaking community, let us keep in mind the numbers we have discussed today and the people they represent. They are the proof and manifestation of the promise that Canada holds by being home to two official languages.
The English-speaking community has been an intrinsic part of Quebec for over quarter of a millennium. It is interwoven with the Francophone community in the unique cultural fabric of the province.
Quebec has a great advantage from having a strong Anglophone minority community, standing as an ally to Francophones, as a proof that we can all work to protect and promote French in Quebec while protecting the linguistic rights of the Anglophone community. That is a feeling that is shared by the people we have had the pleasure of talking to while conducting our polling efforts.
Please allow me to conclude by wishing you a productive policy conference today, including your discussions on the next Action Plan for Official Languages for 2023-28.