Over There (in the UK)

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.


Dammit! Misspelling is my downfall and will ultimately the cause of my death. I knew they were called provinces, honest.

Greg | Jul. 16, 2003 — 11 PM

“…personne ne parle français à Vancouver”?
While I agree with most of what you have to say about the state of French in Canada, Luke, as a person who works in the Francophone cultural sector here in Vancouver, I beg to differ with the above statement. In fact, your readers should know that the French-speaking community here, precisely because it is miniscule, is actually quite vibrant, and there are people who work and play predominantly in French every day. With our own professional French theatre company (Théâtre la Seizième, for which you have worked!), our own annual Festival of French music (la Festival d’Été), a French-language newspaper (l’Express Pacifique), our own branch of Radio-Canada and a fabulous French-Canadian pub with live music (Zinainie), Vancouver manages to give a small taste of what Eastern French Canada has to offer. If I haven’t taken you to Zinainie yet, remind me when you’re home and we’ll go.

— Emma | Jul. 16, 2003 — 11 PM

There is a vibrant French community in Vancouver like there is a vibrant Croatian community, and like there are many other vibrant communities — that’s what makes Canadian cities so, well, vibrant. (God knows, it ain’t us dull anglos.)

When I say “No one speaks French in Vancouver,” what I mean is that French plays almost no role in mainstream city life. A group of proud francophones have created an active corner to maintain and promote their identity, but it’s an exclusive corner. Francophones simply don’t have pull on the city’s identity like, say the Chinese or Punjabi.

Without the mollycoddling of the federal government, which loves to believe Canada is bilingual, you and I both know most of those cultural entities you named would shrink or disappear because they can’t support themselves by raw numbers.

The 2001 census says that out of two million folks in Metro Vancouver, about 24,000 use French at home, or 1.2%. Significant, but you couldn’t live in Vancouver on French alone.

It’s impressive that institutions like Théâtre la Seizième can exist, thrive, and hire eager web site designers, but this existence is at odds with reality.

— Luke | Jul. 17, 2003 — 9 AM

It would probably also be interesting for your readers to know that the difference language is also the symbol of a deeper cultural gap in which everything from food, to laws, to humor is completely different. In this moment in history Canada is still the host of two nations, distinct and insoluble. Anything portraying it otherwise is a parody…. like bilinguism in the rest Canada. In other words… water is great, oil is great, but they simply don’t mix. (Chemists, please abstain from citing exceptions ;-)

Mathieu Sylvain | Jul. 17, 2003 — 9 AM

It would probably also be interesting for the readers of M. Sylvain’s comment to know that the view that Quebec is “insoluble and distinct” is a cherished article of faith of Quebecois seperatists who, unable to describe any legitimate grievances to fuel their desire for an independant state, have come up with increasingly wooly-headed notions that Quebeckers are a distinct people with a historic destiny to have their own country.

It is, to avoid another run-on sentence, mostly bullshit. I have lived outside Quebec — unlike M. Sylvain, I would wager — specifically three provinces, and spent a good chunk of time up north and in aboriginal communities. Does Quebec have a unique culture? Sure. Is downtown Montreal fundamentally different from downtown Toronto, (or main street Shawinigan from main street Peterborough) except for dominant language? No.

M-J | Jul. 17, 2003 — 10 AM


Dear M-J, I find you reply to Mathieu’s comments insulting, arrogant and devoided of any value other than typical propaganda.

So this reply is not addressed to you, but rather to Luke’s readers.


Dear readers,

The point that Mathieu was trying to make was that the fact that the language issue and separatism has been a subject of Canada’s current events for at least the last 30 years is not a weird successions of coincidences.

At the hart of this problem there are two major factors that motivate the debate: distinct culture and distinct history.

Despite M-J’s claim that Montréal and Toronto are the same (which every person from Toronto I ever spoke to always contradicted). Quebec does have more than small differences on every aspect of its culture.

Different education system
Different political scenery
Different laws
Different religious
Different cuisine
Different environment
Different definition of “party”
Different consumer habits
Different Arts (theatre, music, etc)

And also… yes it matters… a different history. We did get the short hand of the stick.

Some people would want to believe that everything that was over ten years ago is not worth remembering. But I dont agree and I’m guessing you dont either.

Quebec’s motto is “Je me souviens”… “I remember”. Although the original meaning that M.Taché wanted for this expression is also the subject of a debate, the meaning that most everyone attaches to it is quite obvious.

Quebec was a “conquered” nation, servitude and assimilation was attempted. In the long term it failed. The result is two distinct nations that are not even close to merge together anytime soon in any significant ways. It might be ancient history, but “Quebec remembers”.

The present is the product of the past and trying to understand what and who we are without-it only results in close-minded, superficial and stubborn opinions. I, for one, dont rely on “faith” to build important opinions such as my obvious belief in “separatism”. I am not an extremist and I don’t hate Canada. To me, It’s just a matter of historical, cultural and political common sense (common at least to me and 49% of Quebec’s population at the last referendum).

I have no intention of bashing or trashing anyone or any culture… but let’s not call Canada and Quebec “a same nation”. It’s just silly.

Now I invite anyone interested on making an educated guess on what to think of all that by looking-up “Québec” on the Wikipedia:

And here is an interesting debate on Quebec’s motto:

LA DEVISE «JE ME SOUVIENS» from Gaston Deschênes.

Cheers to all Canadians, cheers to all the Quebequers… cheers to everyone,

Let’s not be the same!

Culturally yours,
Le Grand Méchant “M”

On last word to Mr. M-J from “The New Forum”:

As a journalist, you might want to think twice before trashing people around and resorting to such rude remarks without providing a valid argumentation.

That only makes you an asshole, and a big one.

A big journalistic asshole!

But please, don’t stop, its always fun replying to social and intellectual midgets of your kind.



Le Grand Méchant "M" | Jul. 17, 2003 — 12 PM

It would probably also be interesting for some readers to note that in the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1774 some fifteen years following their defeat on the Plains of Abraham, the French were explicitly guaranteed their language, their religion and their civil law.

This is why Quebec has a Big Book of Rules in court and the rest of the country’s lawyers spend their days arguing common law.

This is why Quebec has a booming industry converting old-skool Catholic chrurches into condominiums.

This is why Quebec recently coined the word “courriel” (email) which even the French have chosen to adopt.

It might also be interesting for some reasons to note that in 1777 (?) following the arrival of many Good Protestant Union Loyalists who had fled North in the wake of the American Revolution, Quebec was split in two to form Ontario. Quebec having, some two or three years prior, been guaranteed by King George 3 it’s territorial intergrity.

It may further be interesting for some readers to note that following the Papineau rebellion, the English sent over a certain Lord Durham to see what all the fuss was about. He is said, famously, to have remarked the Quebecois were “un peuple sans histoire” (a people without history.)

I was always told this was the reasons that our license plates read “I remember” but I have no documentary proof to back it up.

To say that each region of the country is distinct is hardly untrue. But it ignores the history of the country’s origins, at least since the arrival of Europeans.

To say that les Quebecois are unable to let go of the past is not unlike saying that the rest of the country has almost no grasp on it at all.

Aaron of Montreal | Jul. 18, 2003 — 1 PM

Falher, Alberta, Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, St-Malo, Manitoba, Hawkesbury, Ontario, Caraquet, New Brunswick, Mount Carmel, Prince Edward Island, Argyle, Nova Scotia, Cap-St-Georges, Newfoundland… These are just a few of the numerous Canadian municipalities outside Quebec where francophones make up the majority or a significant proportion of the population. Many of these francophones spend their lives living, working and studying in French. Regarding Mathieu Sylvain’s comments… To say that bilingualism is a parody outside Quebec is incorrect. The next time you are driving through northern Ontario, be sure to explore the towns of Hearst and Kapuskasing and you will see that the province of Quebec is not the only place within Canada where the French language is thriving!
After reading the comments posted by “Le Grand Méchant”, I have to mention that I find Toronto and Montréal have much more in common, than Toronto and Detroit or most other large American cities for that matter. Each one of the differences that “M” has cited (ie. different education system, different environment, etc.) could be used to differentiate each Canadian province or territory from one another. Is PEI’s cuisine identical to that of the Yukon?… Hardly! The point is that Québec is not the only province or Territory with a distinct culture. In fact, each province is a composition of many cultures and languages. Let us not forget the culture/s of the native people who have been living throughout Québec and Canada long before European immigrants arrived here. To me, it is not “just a matter of historical, cultural and political common sense” that Québec should separate from the rest of Canada and become a sovereign nation. Québec is a province consisting of several nations. Geographically speaking, the majority of Québec’s land is not inhabited by francophones, it is inhabited by speakers of the native languages of Canada. Which leads to my final question… Is the culture of the inhabitants of the northern Québec town of Inukjuak really all that similar to that of the francophone residents of Trois-Rivières?

— Antoine | Jul. 22, 2003 — 6 PM

If you went and printed all of the blog comments, message boards, USENET threads and e-mail chains gone awry with the “Quebec-is-a distinct-society”/”No-it ain’t”/”Yes-it-is-but-so-is-every-province-to-some-degree” diatribe, we could rape the boreal forests in one blow.

Friends, let us not waste undue breath (or disk space) with the same old retorts and comebacks, back and forth always. The beauty of the Web is its connectivity; if you are truly passioned by the subject, publish your thesis on a web page and link to it!

(pulls his nose back out of other people’s business) ;¬P

Tim | Jul. 23, 2003 — 12 AM

I agree with some of the comments that have been said…
Truly, French and English Quebeckers don’t share the same cultures. If you go to Montreal, go to St-Laurent street, or Crescent street, and then venture yourself to St-Denis street, and you will notice that not only people don’t speak the same langage, but they don’t have the same culture. For example, clearly, French-Speakers and English-Speakers don’t listen to the same music… I don’t know many Anglophones who listen to Paul Piché or Jean Leloup.
Some of Paul Piché’s songs deal with Quebec issues.
“Je me souviens” is to emphasis that Quebec has its history.
It’s okay to be different, but at least we should admit it.

— AC | Jan. 21, 2004 — 1 PM

I realy need some famous fracaphonnes
in Canada

jess | May. 4, 2004 — 2 PM

Previously: Two Weeks in July

Subsequently: Well Read

July 2003
the Archives

In Earshot

I only really read it for Canucks coverage, but even still it’s nice that The Vancouver Sun finally redesigned its hideously awful website to look like it was designed this century.

On pizza box art

Web 2.Origami

Welcome to Obama, Japan

The Toronto Star shows where and how the seats changed in the 2008 election

“In Earshot” RSS feed

In Frame

Photo of Madrid Modern Photo of Wasp Photo of Hairy and Stripy Cactus Photo of Stripy