A linguistic dilemma

I see an article in the Globe and Mail that says that “Franco-Ontarian parents have long complained that the province’s French-language schools admit too many pupils who aren’t French speakers, putting in jeopardy their children’s linguistic development … [and] … Now, Ontario’s French school boards are facing the prospect of a constitutional challenge over the effect of admissions practices that have resulted in nearly half of their students being non-francophone … [because] … A former school trustee, Basile Dorion, has secured funding to prepare a court case, arguing that franco-Ontarians are being deprived of their constitutional right to an education in their mother tongue … [and] … Mr. Dorion said the high number of anglophone students has effectively turned French schools into French-immersion programs. “They go there to learn French, not to learn in French,” he said in an interview.

There, in a nutshell, is the linguistic dilemma that faces Canada: many Canadians want to learn French, some for its own sake, many because they understand the values of multilingualism, and some because the government of Canada says that many well paid, highly desirable public sector jobs are available only to those who can work in both official languages. Meanwhile, many French-Canadians say that they have a right to live and work in French and, in some provinces, to have their children educated in French, not just to learn French in school but to learn in French because it is their mother tongue, and they cite anecdotal (but legally persuasive?) evidence which suggests that this process of turning French schools into French-immersion programmes ~ which is, without a doubt part of the provincial government’s desire to make the best use of resources ~ deprives their children of a decent education in French.

The article points out that “French school boards in Ontario are guaranteed by Section 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which grants anglophone and francophone minority communities access to public education, where numbers warrant,” and that matters because the numbers, in Ontario, and I suspect for all of Canada show that the number of people who speak French in the home continues to decline …

… dropping, according to Statistics Canada and the Ontario Government, by 1% each census. Some officials will doubtless want to say that the numbers do not warrant real French schools (as opposed to schools where children learn French) in any but one or two districts.

That right is limited to Canadians whose mother tongue is of their province’s linguistic minority, or who received their elementary schooling in that language,” that article explains, “However, Ontario allows non-rights holders to register in French schools if they are approved by an admission committee … [and] … According to Education Ministry data, 45.3 per cent of students enrolled at schools in Ontario’s French boards in 2017-18 didn’t have French as their first language … [and, further] … It was 34.8 per cent in 2010-2011 and has inched up every year.” The fear that schools are changing from places where children “learn in French” to places where children come, simply, to learn French seems obvious.

The Commissioner of Official Languages reports that, for Ontario, “French is the Mother tongue of 4% of the population (527,690)” but, commendably, “11.2% of the population (1,490,390) can speak both English and French.” French immersion is working because people want to learn a second language and, in Canada, French is the obviously preferred second language of choice. But the data from the Government of Ontario also says that more people (627,730) speak Chinese (primarily either Mandarin and Cantonese which use the same written form* but are very different in their spoken forms) …


… than speak French, and the Chinese speakers are growing, fairly rapidly (from 4.1% (2011 census) to 4.7% (2016 census), while the French speakers are declining, albeit slowly, from (4.1% (2011 census) to 4.0% (2016 census).

Statistics Canada reports that French is in decline everywhere in Canada, including in Québec. In Québec the decline is small and it is limited to those who use French only; those who use French regularly or often is increasing. But the right to use French and (more limited) to receive a French education is enshrined in the Constitution.

If Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson are correct in their latest book, ‘Empty Plant: The Shock of Global Population Decline‘ (2019) then that “where numbers warrant” limitation in our Constitution may spell the end of French-language education, as a right, in Canada.

Canada is still growing, thanks, almost entirely, to immigration (mainly from China, India and the Philippines). Some of those immigrants settle in Montreal and Ottawa where there are plenty of economic incentives to learn French … my Cantonese and English speaking wife made many new friends, all recent immigrants, when she went to French class, looking to enhance her resumé. My new daughter, a university student, is also learning French, in fact, this summer was/is being spent in Québec and in France to enhance her learning, but she picks up some spending money by teaching Mandarin to native-born Canadians … Mandarin is her (fluent) second language (Cantonese is her first) but there is a severe shortage of Mandarin teachers here in Ottawa.

Canada has a language dilemma. Constitutionally we are a bilingual country, but, in practice, we are, increasingly, deux nations, a small French-speaking nation centred in Québec and a larger, polyglot nation that uses English as its lingua franca:


Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 07.40.32

The dilemma was always there and it was always going to grow in magnitude. But it was, until 1982, manageable. In 1982 Pierre Trudeau made language rights the centre of his main ‘contribution’ to Canada: the repatriated Constitution. I believe that was a mistake. He was trying to put a finger in the dyke to slow down a problem he could see coming, but constitutional provisions are poor defences against demographic tidal waves.

What to do?

The short answer is nothing … in the short and medium terms. I suspect that some courts will find favour in M Dorion’s campaign to save “education in French” for French-speaking Ontarians. But I think that demographics, the numbers, will, ultimately, in the long term, doom French as a language spoken in the home ‘hors Québec,’ and will make it less and less important in the workplace, anywhere. Canadians, especially Ontarians, should want to be generous towards the French-speaking minority and we should all know the value of multilingualism … the problem is that the ‘language of choice’ for more and more people is one of Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish or Arabic … not French. Demographics and economics, not history, prevail.


* In Guangdong province (the capital of which was, formerly, called Canton) most of the 100+ Million people speak Cantonese and write using the modern simplified Chinese while in Hong Kong, at the southern tip of Guandong, the people also speak Cantonese but write using the more complex traditional characters. Traditional characters are also used in Taiwan but most people (everyone?) who use traditional Chinese characters can also use simplified characters, too.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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