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Page 14 of 46

A bilingual society

Ethnolinguistic composition of the population

There are three trends influencing Canada’s demographic evolution from the viewpoint of official languages:

  • both major linguistic communities have been maintained;
  • in an ongoing trend, official language minorities are making up a smaller proportion of Canada’s population; and
  • Canada’s population is becoming more and more cosmopolitan.

Diversification. Canada’s population grew considerably and changed greatly during the 20th century. Census data from 1871 to 2001 show the population increasing from 3.5 million to almost 30 million, and comparable data on ethnic origin from 1871 to 1991 show a phenomenon of ethnocultural diversification underway (see Figure 1). While the proportion of the population of French ethnic origin remained relatively stable, the proportion of British origin decreased as the proportion of people of other origins grew.

Figure 1 - Population by ethnic origin, Canada, 1871-1991

Did you know…

Expo 67, which took place in Montréal at the very time when the B and B Commission was preparing its report, was one of the events that spotlighted the existence of Canada’s Francophone community. This event was to show the whole world, but also the rest of Canada, that French was an integral part of the country’s fabric

French and English, still. During this period, English and French remained the two most spoken languages in the country. In 2001, only 10% of the population most often spoke a language other than English or French in the home.14 People with Chinese as their mother tongue ranked third, comprising 3% of the Canadian population.15

However, linguistic minorities as a percentage of the population have continued to decrease (see Figures 2 and 3). While the minority with French as a mother tongue grew by a third to reach approximately a million in 2001, this now represents no more than 4% of the population of Canada outside Quebec, compared to 7% in 1951. This relative decrease is largely explained by the significant growth of the English-speaking population, particularly as a result of immigrants joining the Anglophone majority.

Figure 2 - French mother tongue population, Canada except Quebec
Figure 3 - English mother tongue population in Quebec

On the other hand, Quebec’s minority of people with English as a mother tongue has swung widely, going from 600,000 in 1951 to almost 800,000 and then back down to 600,000 people in 2001. At the same time, its relative share of Quebec’s population shrank from 14% to 8%. This relative decrease was mainly due to the exodus of English-speakers to other provinces during the 1980s.

Since 1991, a clearer picture is obtained by looking at the demolinguistic trends from the point of view of “first official language spoken,” defined as the official language that a census respondent currently speaks and in most cases first learned.16 Over the past 10 years, we have seen the French-speaking minority in Canada and the English-speaking minority in Quebec both decrease by half a percentage point (see Figure 4).

Let us examine how linguistic duality has taken root in various segments of society—the general population, civil society and the private sector.

Within the general population

Until the second half of the 20th century, Canada’s English and French communities lived relatively separate lives and needed only a minimal level of bilingualism. In 1931, 13% of the Canadian population was considered to be bilingual.17 In 1951, this figure remained almost unchanged at 12% but it started to climb in the mid-1960s and reached 18%, or 5.2 million individuals, in 2001 (see Figure 5).18 Five million people—the equivalent of the population of an influential country like Denmark or Finland!

Figure 5 - Knowledge of English and French in Canada, 1951-2001

Quebec accounted for most of the increase in individual bilingualism, where the number of bilingual speakers went from 1 million (26%) to 3 million (41%) between 1951 and 2001. In comparison, New Brunswick saw its number of bilingual speakers grow from 100,000 (19%) to 250,000 (34%) in the same period. Across Canada, the rate of bilingualism today is higher among Francophones (44%) than among Anglophones (9%). In Quebec, however, more Anglophones are bilingual (67%) than Francophones (37%).

Among youth 15 to 24 years of age, we can see that the bilingualism level has doubled in the past 30 years among Anglophones outside Quebec to reach 14%, while it has increased by a third among Francophones in Quebec to reach 42% (see Figure 6).

Figure 6 - Mastery of the other official language in the 15-24 age group, Anglophones outside Quebec and Francophones in Quebec, 1971-2001

With the population becoming increasingly bilingual and the principle of duality taking root, people in politics have had to meet higher expectations. Since the Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau, all prime ministers have been able to speak both official languages. Similarly, the heads of the major political parties have been bilingual or have had to learn their second official language.

“In national politics, it’s now a given […] that a party leader, let alone a prime minister, must be somewhat or fluently bilingual.”

— Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail,
February 28, 2004.

However, there is still a long way to go with respect to individual bilingualism because, as we will see, Canadians’ support for the idea of using our two official languages exceeds their actual ability to speak both languages.

Civil society

Canadian civil society, that is, non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations, do not fall under the Official Languages Act, but they adhere to its spirit in large part and now embody linguistic duality.

Bilingualism in national associations. Most large national organizations increasingly operate in both languages, among them, for example, Volunteer Canada, the Association for Canadian Studies, the Canadian Paralympic Committee, the Canadian Institute of Actuaries, Saint John Ambulance, the Canadian Environmental Network, and the Canadian Urban Transit Association. The Government of Canada has certainly helped promote this bilingual face through various programs now implemented by Canadian Heritage. For example, there are the Assistance for Interpretation and Translation Program and the Development of Official Language Services Program, which have existed for 25 years. One of the challenges related to the level of commitment within civil society is the danger of limiting linguistic duality to the translation or interpretation of national content, without factoring in the experience and aspirations of each of the different groups making up the official language communities.

Canadian Parents for French. The dialogue around Canada’s linguistic duality has taken shape through a number of initiatives by civil society groups. Canadian Parents for French (CPF) is one of these groups. It actively supports French as a second language education through its lobbying, training and resource networking activities.19 Created in 1977, this association has spread across the country and has some 18,000 volunteer members. It has helped the Anglophone community achieve a deeper appreciation of the value of Canada’s duality and understand the importance of learning French. Canadian Parents for French is particularly supportive of French immersion, which has been remarkably successful since its beginnings in 1965. Not only have several million young Anglophone students developed skills in their other official language thanks to this intensive method, but they have been exposed to a variety of cultural experiences that have given them a broader view of the world. For example, as of 2002–2003 there were some 357,000 Anglophone students in French immersion (more about French immersion in Chapter 4).

“Interestingly, French immersion is also one of Canada’s major exports in international education, with educators in Japan, Wales, Spain and the USA applying made-in-Canada immersion methodology to the teaching of second languages, enhancing the language skills of young people around the globe.”

— J. Shea, Canadian Parents for French,
“Canada’s Education Revolution in its
Second Generation,” Canadian Issues/
Thèmes canadiens
, June 2003, p. 39.

Exchanges. Numerous government initiatives aimed at promoting learning and exchanges between young people in Canada have been supported by the official languages policy since the 1970s. These include EduCanada, Katimavik,20 Exchanges Canada,21 Young Canada Works22 and programs for official language monitors and official language bursaries. 23 Thousands of young people have thus contributed to the official languages dialogue and started to prepare for the bilingual and multicultural Canada of today.

The private sector

The private sector, especially large nationwide businesses and those operating in Quebec, are also increasingly accepting Canada’s linguistic duality. Aware of the size of the Francophone market share, large companies such as Bell, Bombardier, banks and financial institutions often project their corporate image in both languages.


Interview with John Stanton, President and Founder, Running Room Ltd, Edmonton

“Our entry in the province of Quebec forced us to look at being—and becoming—a fully bilingual company. Operating in the two languages helped mature us as a company.

When we offered our various forms in the two languages in Ottawa, we realized that 20 to 30% of those picked up were in French. We realized that quite inadvertently we had in effect been forcing our Francophone clients to use English.

Operating in both languages in Quebec and in cities like Ottawa, Moncton and Sudbury was a huge challenge initially. Now we are able to offer our products and services in both languages.

Retailers need to think of language in terms of what the customer wants. We need to be respectful of our customers.

Public reaction to our decision to become bilingual has been really positive. We have had loads of compliments for instance on our bilingual Web site and telephone messages.

What help might government provide? One important area is translation. It would be very helpful if some sort of advisory resource were able to help companies find the right French terminology in certain specialized fields such as ours.”

— Interviewed on January 13, 2005

Even a smaller business—Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC)—has recently contributed to the promotion of the French language as part of its expansion with the production of a French glossary of outdoor sports terms.24 In relation to the challenges involved in transforming a unilingual business into a bilingual one, MEC’s President, Peter Robinson, has indicated that serving the Francophone community has expanded the outdoor equipment co-operative’s sales and membership and has also fostered new enthusiasm among its employees and even its suppliers.25

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