July 14, 2003 at 1 PM
Où vivent-t-ils les francophones du Canada?
In the comments on my entry about the French Canadian national anthem, my fellow blogger Greg asked “So where does the French speaking start and stop in Canada? Is it bound to one provence [sic] or half the country?”
This seems like the perfect opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about Canada, Quebec and French-Canadians for my “international” audience. Granted, not everyone cares about this large and largely-empty country in the North-west corner of the world, and my fellow Canadians already know all this stuff, so click on if you care for une histoire de l’Amérique française.
First, I’ll pedantically correct Greg’s spelling: “Provence” is a region of France where people speak a French dialect called Provençal. Canada is a confederation of ten “provinces” (and three territories). About 7.5 million people live in the rather vast province of Quebec, making it the second-largest by population. (Ontario, with about 12 million people, is the largest.) Although Quebec is only one of ten provinces, nearly one in four Canadians lives here.
Inevitably when a Canadian like myself travels broad, one finds certain ingrained beliefs among foreigners. Many people around the world are aware of Quebec because of the rise of French-Canadian nationalism and its offshoot, the Quebec separatist movement. Since few other places in Canada garner any similar attention, people either assume Canadians are from Quebec and thus speak French, or alternatively that Quebec’s political importance in Canada means that all Canadians must speak French.
French and English are Canada’s official languages, but despite the federal government’s heavy and expensive promotion of “bilingualism” (the ability to speak both), the linguistic reality is somewhat different. About 23% of all Canadians have French as their mother tongue. Although there are small pockets of French-speakers (“francophones”) in every province, the overwhelming majority live in Quebec. Most Quebeckers are ethnically French-Canadian; they are descendants of the colonists of New France, which was settled in the early 18th century. Today French-Canadians in Quebec refer to themselves as les Québécois since the term canadien-français now has negative connotations stemming from the historical oppression of the French minority in Canada.
The remaining francophones are scattered. There is a significant French population in Ontario, but mostly on the border with Quebec. More notably perhaps, there are many French-speakers on the East Coast, mainly in New Brunswick, but also in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The francophones of these provinces are known as Acadians, since the entire area, including part of Maine, was called Acadia by the French when they first colonized North America in the early 17th century. A point of history: when the British took control of North America in the mid-18th century, they expunged most of the Acadians from the area, and many fled to Louisiana, although some later returned. The term Cajun comes from the English pronunciation of the French word acadien (“acadjunn”).
In Canada today, Quebec is the only province where French is the dominant language. In Quebec and in certain parts of New Brunswick, it is possible a person could live their entire life without speaking English, but everywhere else, francophones almost certainly speak English on a regular basis, since it is the language of the “national” media and of most business.
Although English-speaking Canadians (“anglophones”) like myself often learn French in high school, it is not a requirement everywhere in the country and the lack of crossover between French and English culture means that what French is learned is often quickly forgotten unless one moves to Quebec. In eight of ten provinces, the percentage of people whose mother tongue is French hovers between one and four percent. Of those, even fewer still speak French at home as many have assimilated into English culture.
A famous Canadian novel is entitled Two Solitudes, a portrayal of how the country is split along linguistic lines. French-Canada is still a solitude because of the cultural isolation of Quebec, but to call English-Canada the other solitude is misleading today. In most Canadian cities, French is not the second language, but the fourth or seventh or twelfth. In Toronto and Vancouver, the most common mother tongue aside from English is one or another dialect of Chinese.
The latest census shows that the total number of people whose mother tongue is French in Canada is now only slightly higher than the total whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. Along with the dominance of English around the world, a steady tide of immigration have led to the decline of French’s significance in Canada. Since most immigrants’ children speak English, French will only continue to wane in influence, except in Quebec where its use is fiercely defended. It is this isolation which fuels Quebec nationalism. While francophones living in the rest of Canada are doubtless willing to defend their language, only Quebeckers actually have the territory and political will to define a nation.
Puisque je vive au Québec, j’ai appris parler français. Si je retourne au “rest of Canada”, j’ai peur d’oublier la langue, car personne ne parle français à Vancouver. Mais ça, c’est la réalité du Canada.