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New census data showing French 'in danger' spurs debate ahead of Quebec election

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French Language Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette responds to the Opposition while Quebec Premier François Legault, right, reacts during question period on June 1, 2022, at the legislature in Quebec City. Jolin-Barrette says new data from the Canadian census shows the French language is in danger in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — New census data released Wednesday shows that French is in danger, according to Quebec's political class, but an anglophone rights group says it worries the data will be used to portray English speakers as a threat ahead of the fall provincial election. 

The census data proves "beyond any reasonable doubt" that the French language is at risk in the province, said Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec's Minister of the French Language. 

Quebec is at a linguistic crossroads, and it's time to "reverse the trend" and slow "the decline of French" in the province, he added.

In its latest census release, Statistics Canada said the percentage of Quebec residents who predominantly speak French at home declined to 77.5 per cent in 2021 from 79 per cent in 2016. The percentage of Quebec residents whose first official language is English rose to 13 per cent in 2021 from 12 per cent in 2016, reaching more than one million people for the first time.

Eva Ludvig, the interim president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an anglophone rights group, said the growth of Quebec's English-speaking community should be celebrated.

"We don't see ourselves as a threat to Quebec, we see ourselves as an ally to the French language — we support it, we learn it, we use it," she said. "But just because we want our identity and our rights protected does not make us a threat."

However, she said she worries the next Quebec government will use the data as an excuse to impose new restrictions on languages other than French. Bill 96, which was passed by the legislature in May, does little to protect French but punishes people who speak English, Ludvig said.

Jolin-Barrette, the architect of Bill 96, which aims to make French the common language in all areas of Quebec life — including at home and at work — said his party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, doesn't plan to introduce new language legislation if it is re-elected in October. The law, he added, gives the government all the tools necessary to protect French.

The Parti Québécois seized on the new numbers to reinforce its argument that it's the only party that will go further than the CAQ to promote French in the province. PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said the government has taken "half measures" to protect French and a more "robust and comprehensive plan" is needed.

"Year after year, we see that the decline of French is accelerating without governments having the courage to introduce measures that rise to the challenge of reversing this trend," he said in a statement. 

The Quebec Liberal Party, meanwhile, said that protecting the French language is a priority — but that it won't try to change what language people speak among friends and family.

"What is important for us is ensuring that French is the common language in Quebec. It's not up to the government to dictate the language spoken at home," the party said in a statement. 

Quebec Premier François Legault has said that if French is not spoken at home, the language will eventually disappear. 

Daniel Béland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, says the timing of the release of the census data puts language issues on the agenda ahead of Quebec's Oct. 3 election.

Béland said the data may put the government on the defensive, but he added that it will be easy for the CAQ to say it has already acted with Bill 96. The party could also use the new census figures to reinforce its calls for Ottawa to give Quebec more control over immigration.

"I don't think language will be the dominant theme during the campaign, but with these new numbers, certainly, (the parties) won't be able to avoid it," Béland said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2022.

— With files from Jocelyne Richer in Quebec City. 

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press