MONTREAL — Language and immigration politics were back at the forefront in Quebec’s national assembly last week, as Premier François Legault drew criticism for sounding the alarm over a decline in the number of people who speak French at home.
Legault declared on Wednesday that "nobody could deny" French is in decline, saying fewer Quebecers were speaking the language at home as well as at work.
His comments — which came after a weekend speech in which he said the survival of the Quebec nation depended on the province gaining greater control over immigration — sparked fiery rebukes from opposition politicians, who accused him of scapegoating immigrants who might speak their first languages at home even if they've learned French.
Demographers who spoke to The Canadian Press agreed that French is declining slowly but said the portrait is complex and reversing the trend is even more so.
Liberal immigration critic Saul Polo urged Legault to retract his statements, saying "the language spoken at home should not be the premier's business."
"Go tell the Armenian community, which is here for five generations, that fled a genocide; go tell the Lebanese community, which fled civil wars; the Cambodian community, the Colombian community, who don't have French as a first language, that we represent a threat to Quebec," he said in the legislature.
Legault, meanwhile, said the language spoken at home is one indicator his government considers, insisting his government's sole goal was to ensure French remains Quebec's common language.
"If there's nobody in Quebec who speaks French at home, it means French will eventually disappear," he told a news conference in Quebec City.
Alain Bélanger, a demographics professor at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, says it's clear that the number of people who speak French at home is declining because of an increasing number of immigrants who are allophone — whose mother tongue is neither English nor French.
He said that while it's an indicator of French levels, a far more important measure is whether children of immigrants integrate into French or English.
"It's not so bad if allophones, whether Spanish, Arabic, Punjabi or Tagalog, continue to use their language at home," he said. "What's more important is the second generation that has to choose between English and French."
Bélanger says that while more immigrants are choosing French than English — about 60 per cent — it isn't enough to maintain the linguistic balance in the province, which could require closer to 90 per cent.
He said the result is an overall decline in the French language — one that is very slow but is tough to reverse.
"Demographics are like an ocean liner, not a canoe," he said. "It doesn't turn on a dime.”
Calvin Veltman, a retired sociolinguist and demographer who taught at Université du Québec à Montréal, takes a more optimistic view. While he agrees French has declined slightly since 2001, he believes the integration of immigrants into French-speaking society has been a "remarkable success." A large part of that success is due to Bill 101's requirement that children of immigrants attend school in French.
He takes issue with how many people analyze language data, saying they tend to exclude from the francophone group allophones who speak French as well as their first language at home.
He said the oft-cited 60 per cent number of immigrants who integrate into French includes those who arrived long ago and their children. By his calculations, about 75 per cent of the immigrants who have arrived in the province since 2001 have chosen French over English — which is probably as high as it will ever get, in his opinion.
Statistics Canada found that as of 2016, 94.5 per cent of the Quebec population was able to carry on a conversation in French. The number of people who spoke French at home was 87.1 per cent, similar to the previous census, but the survey also reported that families were increasingly likely to speak another language as well.
However, projections released in 2017 found that the proportion speaking French at home could go from 82 per cent in 2011 to around 75 per cent in 2036. Meanwhile, English spoken at home could rise from 11 per cent in 2011 to 13 per cent in 2036.
Both Veltman and Bélanger noted that official statistics don't always present a clear picture of what's happening.
Veltman said there is a large group of people who speak both French and English at home and who can be hard to categorize.
"We're becoming a much more bilingual society," he said. "If that's dangerous to French, I don't know."
Bélanger, for his part, questions the 94.5 per cent French rate. He noted that there was widespread opposition in the anglophone community to a recent proposal requiring students at English-language junior colleges to take three of their core classes in French — which suggests the bilingualism level of many English-speakers isn't very high.
Marc Termote, a retired professor at Université de Montréal, believes the fundamental problem of language decline will be nearly impossible to avoid because French Quebecers have so few children.
However, he said the process will take centuries, not decades, because of the strong measures in place. He said it's "unthinkable" that Quebec will become another Louisiana, where French has all but disappeared — a comparison evoked by Legault last week.
"I can't imagine he really thought that in 50 years we'll be at two per cent of francophones in Quebec," he said of Legault.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2022.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press