English or French: Which Really Rules Canada?

Canada is known as a bilingual country, thought by outsiders to be equally represented in both English and French. So it might come as a surprise to learn that these official languages have a number of minority communities. Is there really a risk that either of these languages is going to become obsolete in the country, though?


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English or French: what’s at stake? / photo via Pixabay


The numbers

7.2 million Canadians speak French as their first language, making up about 20 percent of the entire population. About 20 million speak English – equating to 58 percent -, and the rest is made up of a mixture of the 67 aboriginal languages and foreign languages spoken by those who call Canada home. In terms of numbers alone, then, both French and English appear to be without risk of extinction.


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French under attack?

Ask anyone in Quebec and you might come to believe that the French language is about to be eradicated once and for all. Though it is true that Quebec remains the only Canadian province that operates almost entirely in French, there are very few universities in Canada that teach entirely in French. The vast majority are taught in English or have parts of their programme that are bilingual. Recently, plans for a French-only university in Toronto were scrapped. And with the mostly monolingual U.S. to the south, it is perhaps understandable why Francophones feel their language is at risk.

Back in the 1950s, Canada’s minority Francophone communities faced a rapid decline. This led to an overhaul of how the communities were run, and a redefining of the purpose and importance of these communities the country over. A period followed where community leaders lobbied for the right to governance in the language of their choice, and this paved the way for the bilingual charters and governance we have in Canada today.


Government backing

The Government of Canada has committed to supporting both Anglophone and Francophone communities across the country. This includes an investment of $67.2 million over five years for school and cultural infrastructure construction projects. The money will go towards building and renovating existing community and cultural centers to keep these languages thriving.

Plans include giving nonprofits in these minority language communities the chance to develop activities in that community’s preferred language. This will help not only individuals to interact with fellow French or English speakers, but will also contribute to the social development of the community.


Francophone minority communities

Prince George is one of fourteen communities that has been chosen as a Welcoming Francophone Community, which is part of the government’s Action Plan for Official Languages. These communities will receive funding to help newly-arrived French speakers feel welcome and integrate into Francophone minority communities throughout Canada.

There are close to one million Francophones who form minority communities in Canada’s provinces and territories outside of Quebec. Compare this with the Anglophone minority communities found almost solely in Quebec, and you will see why these communities are often in conflict.


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What’s your solution to the English-French divide? / photo via Wikimedia


A problem of education

One of the main issues of contention focused on by these minority communities is education. In Quebec, children whose parents are English-speaking cannot always be guaranteed to be taught in English-speaking schools in Canada. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that citizens who were educated in a minority language in their province can also have their children educated in that language. Yet, immigrants arriving in Canada cannot insist that their children will be taught in the same tongue.


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What are your thoughts on bilingual signage? / photo via Flickr


What is at stake?

If we take away important offices, infrastructure, and positions in either French or English, those whose native tongue is either of those languages will feel at threat. Ontario choosing to get rid of the Office of the French Language Services Commissioner sends a message to the Francophone community that the French language isn’t as important as English. English school boards in Quebec are struggling to retain pupil numbers because of the law denying Anglophone immigrants the right to have their children taught in English.

Multilingual countries like Luxembourg and Switzerland make multiple official languages work, providing education and all government services in all available official languages. So it goes without saying that the simple answer for Canada’s minority language problems would be to make every school and government department bilingual. But would that really work in Canada?