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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The world needs to stop equating Francophone Canada with Québec.​

Starting with misconceptions

Whether you like maple syrup or not, you will probably instantly associate it with Canada, and maybe on second thought with Québec. By contrast, you will probably associate the French language in Canada simply with Québec, not with Canada as a whole. Well, let’s try to rectify that.

Canada’s biggest ‘Anglophone’ province: Ontario

First things first: Canada’s capital, Ottawa, is situated in Ontario, the country’s most populous province. Unlike in the US and some other countries, Ottawa is not a special territory, but simply a regular city that sits in the same province as Toronto and the world-famous Niagara Falls. Hence, it is in a supposedly Anglophone part of the country. Yet, walk into any store in the city and you will be greeted by a friendly “Bonjour, Hi”. It’s a phrase locals use to give you the opportunity to reply with “Bonjour” if you prefer to speak French or “Hi” if you prefer English. In fact, there are large swathes of Ontario where people identify French as their first language. The map below by Canada’s statistics agency illustrates that impressively. The areas in shades of orange indicate counties in which between 10-50% of the population speak French as a first language.

These areas in the mid-North of Ontario, however, can be characterized as very rural. Most of the province’s population is concentrated in the southern region around Toronto, where French speakers are few and far between. Noteworthy is also the dark red cluster in the eastern corner of the province, where a majority of the population are Francophone in multiple counties. In total, Ontario counts a quite impressive half a million French native speakers. That’s the second largest number across all provinces, only trumped by Québec itself.

How about other provinces?

What might surprise many readers is that Canada has one province whose bilingual status is even enshrined in the constitution: New Brunswick. It is a province situated northeast of the US state of Maine (Maine also has about 3% French native speakers, but that is for another time). About 30% of New Brunswick’s population consider French their first language while 50% do so for English. The rest either identify with both languages equally or primarily speak another one altogether. Such statistics, however, can be deceptive. An example of that is the territory of Yukon in the far-flung, northwestern corner of Canada. Yukon forms the country’s border with Alaska and also counts just shy of 5% French native speakers. However, Yukon’s total population is merely 34,000. Hence, 5% equals less than 1,700 Francophones; hardly a significant number. The point here is that Francophone Canadians can be found across all provinces, with their numbers being 80,000 strong in Alberta and still counting 65,000 in British Columbia, which lies on the Pacific coast. It would be fair to say, though, that most British Columbians will never need French in their entire lives. There is one, crucial exception to this observation: If you want to work for federal authorities it is hard to avoid French, no matter where you live in the world’s second largest country.

The situation at the federal level

All federal institutions in every part of the country need to provide services in both French and English. Likewise, kids are guaranteed primary and secondary school opportunities in both languages, a right enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is furthermore the official policy of the federal government to “increase immigration to maintain the demographic weight of francophones outside Québec”. At the political level, it is noteworthy that there has not been a single prime minister in the country’s history who was not able to converse in both languages. Some may mock previous prime ministers for their French pronunciation errors or lack of fine-combed vocabulary. However, anyone who might have grown up in an exclusively English-speaking town or household should be given enormous credit for their ability to hold heated political debates on live TV in another language. Concerning the parliament itself, one will notice that bilingual debates are the rule and not the exception. Ministers as well as MPs are switching mid-statement from English to French or vice versa. An MP from a Francophone constituency might ask a question in French and receive a response by a minister in English. A bilingual environment is a fact of life for Canadian politicians and federal employees irrespective of where they came from.

And now: What about Québec?

Lastly, let’s look at the inverse of what we discussed so far. It is by no means the case that Québec is an entirely Francophone province. Remember the phrase “Bonjour, Hi” from above? You will certainly be greeted in the same way in Québec’s main city, Montreal. With a metro area population of 4 million, the city is Canada’s second-largest after Toronto. The reason you will be welcomed here in two languages is that virtually every resident of the city is -at least- bilingual. In fact, the only ones who are often not are Anglophone Canadians who moved here from other provinces. You will find various neighborhoods in the city dominated by “the Anglophones” where you do not need proficiency in French at all. For Québec in total, about 85% of the population speak French, which leaves a sizable 1.6 million people who do not. The perception that Québec is Francophone is therefore an erroneous generalization as much as the one that the rest of Canada is not. The story of Anglophone and Francophone Canada is not a clear-cut one. Maybe there are no truly ‘French-speaking’ or ‘English-speaking’ provinces. Maybe there is just Canada.

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