Canadian Dispatch: Census Shows Fewer Quebecers Speak French at Home | Opinion

Just about 300 years ago, the empire known as New France swept across a vast arc from Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, westward to the Rocky Mountains, and south along the Mississippi Basin and to the Gulf of Mexico. Virtually all of the territory north and west of the burgeoning American colonies was soil claimed by France.

New France, however, as one historian put it, was a colossus with feet of clay.

In less than a hundred years, with the surrender of New France to Great Britain in 1763 during the Seven Years’ War and the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, the French presence in North America was reduced to what is now Quebec, pockets of New Brunswick and some Métis settlements in the west.

This brief history lesson is an attempt to put into context the state of French in Canada as revealed in the latest national census figures released last week. Depending on whether one is a glass half full or half empty, the data confirms either the staggering miracle of French survival or the inevitable withering of the French fact in a continent dominated by the English.

Without boring you with a fog of statistics, the result of the census is that more people speak French as their first language in Quebec, but fewer people speak French at home. The decline in the number of French speakers at home since the last census in 2016 was from 79% to 77.5%. Twenty years ago, it was 82.3%.

A study last year by the province’s language monitoring agency projected based on current demographic trends that by 2036, about 75% of Quebecers will speak French at home. The study indicates that English represents about half of these non-French speakers, the rest any of a polyglot panorama of languages.

We hasten to add that the greater Montreal area, one of the most diverse urban communities in the world, is at the center of these demographic trends. In the various regions of the province, the linguistic needle has hardly moved for decades.

These statistics may not seem far-fetched to most people, but for the Quebec government, the trend signifies a “worrying decline,” according to Simon Jolin-Barrette, the province’s minister responsible for language laws. Earlier this year, Jolin-Barrette spearheaded the government’s sweeping update of Quebec’s basic language law, Bill 101, introduced by the Parti Québécois in 1977.

The purpose of Bill 96 was to stop the perceived erosion of the use of French in Quebec. It could take years to measure the impact of the changes, but even the most optimistic observers concede that if the measures increase the use of French, it would be at work, not at home.

Barring a baby boom among French-speaking women of epic proportions – a “cradle revenge” of the last few days – there seems to be little lawmakers can do to increase the rate of French spoken at home.

This has been a central issue for Quebec for decades. In 1988, then-Prime Minister Robert Bourassa declared that the low birth rate among French speakers “is the No. 1 national issue of the time, much more than the creation of an independent republic of Quebec. “.

Another former prime minister, PQ leader Lucien Bouchard, sparked a major outcry during the 1995 referendum campaign for that aforementioned republic, when he said in a speech: “We are one of the white races that has the fewest children. This suggests that we have not resolved our family issues.

“Family” is the key word in this statement. As one Latino from Montreal said in a comment: “No Latino family I know questions the importance of knowing French. Children acquire it at school. On the other hand, it is absurd to expect Spanish speakers (or speakers of any other language) to speak French to each other at home or at social gatherings in their communities.

According to commentators, the key to the survival of French should be to reinforce the use of French in the workplace, through laws such as Bill 96, and to increase the immigration of Francophones. Neither is a guaranteed solution.

Three hundred years ago, the challenge to French survival in North America was military and political. Nowadays, the battle to preserve and even develop the use of French in the last bastion of the language has become legal and socio-economic.

Peter Black is a Quebec-based broadcaster and writer. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a journalist and editor, as well as a translator and freelance writer. Email him:

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