Is the French Language Disappearing in Canada?

The president of Air Canada recently caused a scandal by declaring that he had no time to learn French. An episode that highlights the persistent inequality between French and English in the country.
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault

French is no laughing matter in Quebec. When in November 2021, Air Canada president Michael Rousseau thought it was a good idea to say that he hadn’t had time to learn the language, he sparked a storm of criticism and had to apologize. Especially as he had the nerve to add, in English, to a journalist talking to him about the Gallic tongue, that he has been “able to live in Montreal without speaking French.”

His words are particularly shocking because French is not a mere accessory in the “land of the maple leaf.” In fact, it is the joint official language with English. And in Quebec, it is the only official language, as written in the province’s constitution. But that’s not all. French is also the joint official language, along with English, of the federal province of New Brunswick and the territory of Yukon. Meanwhile, in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, they both share official status with other native American languages.

The faux pas from the Air Canada boss is even more surprising given that his company – like all federal institutions and government businesses in the country – are subject to the law on official languages, and is therefore obliged to provide its customers with services in both French and English.

The Rebirth of French

The French language has come a long way in Canada. There was a time when, after Jacques Cartier and the first sailors from Saint-Malo arrived in 1534, it was well established over this part of the continent. But in 1763, just over two centuries later, the Treaty of Paris put a definitive end to the colony of New France. By ceding its North American territories to the British crown, the French royal family abandoned some 20,000 of its subjects. The emergence of an Anglophone bourgeois class in the 19th century saw French reduced to a working-class dialect which was scorned by many. Until the mid-20th century, “speak white” (implying “speak English”) was a retort commonly heard in a Montreal department store when speaking French to sales staff.

It took until the 1960s for Francophones to make a stand. Following in the footsteps of Black civil rights struggles and alongside student and worker protest movements in France and Europe, the people of Quebec started fighting to defend their identity and redefine the relationship between their province and the federal government. This period, known as the Quiet Revolution, did not lead to independence as many locals hoped, but rather to a series of linguistic laws, including one in 1969 on official languages which saw Canada become a bilingual state. In Quebec, the subsequent Charte de la Langue Française in 1977, known as “Law 101,” imposed French as the only
official language in the province.

How many Canadians speak French today? It all depends on the definition. In the 2016 census, around 8 million citizens – around 22% of the national population – were native French speakers or spoke French at home. If we use the criteria adopted by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), according to which Francophones are defined as those capable of having a conversation in the language of Antonine Maillet (1979 Prix Goncourt for Pélagie), Canada has 10.9 million speakers. This represents some 30% of the population, making it the world’s sixth largest country where French is spoken as of 2018. (The other countries are France [66 million speakers], the Democratic Republic of the Congo [42.5 million], Algeria [13.8 million], Morocco [12.7 million], and… Germany [12.2 million].)


The Influence of Quebec and New Brunswick

The distribution of French-speaking Canadians is largely explained by the history of colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries. Almost 85% of them live in Quebec, and the eastern province of New Brunswick is made up of more than 30% of Francophones. Everywhere else, they make up no more than 3%. However, the actual number of Francophones in Ontario, the most populous Canadian province (around 15 million inhabitants), is far greater than in New Brunswick (750,000 inhabitants). In fact, Ontario became an observer member of the OIF in 2016, joining Quebec, New Brunswick, and the Canadian government itself, which have all been full members of the organization since the 1970s.

Francophone Canadians have their own media companies and are very attached to them. The radio stations and television channels offered by Radio Canada broadcast exclusively in French (CBC is the English-language equivalent) across the entire country. ICI Radio-Canada Télé reaches almost 80% of people in Quebec. Meanwhile, Télé-Québec, a network owned by the local government, is watched by most Francophones in the Belle Province. The written press also has a major presence, and the main daily newspapers include La Presse, Le Journal de Montréal, Le Journal de Québec, Le Soleil, and the excellent Le Devoir (the equivalent of Le Monde).

Nevertheless, certain figures indicating a decrease in the use of French in Quebec cast a real shadow. The percentage of inhabitants in the province claiming that French is their native language dropped from 81.5% in 2001 to 79% in 2016. Worse still, this number went under the 50% mark (49.6%) on the island of Montreal, an area home to a quarter of the Quebecer population. In light of these figures, some have tried to take a reassuring tone by putting forward other numbers showing that 94% of Quebecers are able to have a conversation in French.

The Rise of “Third” Languages

Despite what many may think, the drop in French speakers is not always due to an increase in English speakers. In Quebec, the percentage of Anglophones (a little more than 8% of the population), has not changed. Through immigration, an increasing number of people speak other languages than French and English. According to the latest census, the proportion of those who speak a “third” native language or who say they speak one of these third languages at home had risen every year to reach 21% as of 2016.

In fact, Quebec has never welcomed so many migrants – currently more than 50,000 per year – and is struggling to integrate them. In terms of linguistic assimilation, English – which attracts ten times more new speakers than French – is far more effective. Another more insidious problem is the fact that Francophones are forced to speak English at work. Published in 2020, a study from the Office Québécois de la Langue Française revealed that 40% of companies in the province ask for English in their hiring processes. This number was as high as 63% in Montreal and the surrounding area.

This is why the Air Canada scandal serves as a reminder. It has highlighted the persistent inequality between French and English in this country – a reality that the federal government has not denied. In September 2021, the state declared it would reinforce the 1969 federal law on official languages. As a result, Canada may officially recognize French as Quebec’s only language. What’s more, the fact that Quebecers form a single nation would be written into the constitution. If it is adopted, the new text will also impose bilingualism upon Supreme Court judges, as well as on private companies in Quebec and in other areas home to a large percentage of Francophones, such as New Brunswick and Eastern Ontario.

In Quebec, Premier François Legault is not going to sit and watch the decline of the French language. Instead, he wants to reassess the Law 101 adopted in 1977. The right for Francophones to work in their native language should therefore be written in stone. The Quebecer government’s other projects include creating a Ministry of the French Language and nominating a French-language commissioner who will be tasked with monitoring the linguistic situation across the province. Regardless of the results of these political initiatives, the energy Francophone Canadians are putting into defending their language can only inspire respect. The French would do well to take note!


Article published in the March 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.