Since the Official Languages Act of 1969, both English and French have been the official languages of Canada.
The majority of Canada’s French-speaking population lives in Quebec. The province follows the Charter of the French Language and uses French as the main language in both the government and daily life.
However, the number of predominantly French speakers in Quebec is starting to decline. Census data suggests that from 2016 to 2021, numbers dropped from 79% to 77%. This trend has prompted some Québécois to push for more French-speaking in the province.
Additionally, about 25% of the Canadian population speak a first language besides French and English.
“The results that we released today show in large part that trends are continuing in Canada,” Éric Caron-Malenfant, assistant director of the Centre for Demography at Statistics Canada, CBS reported.
Want to learn more about Canada’s official languages? Keep reading to discover why both English and French are used.
The Bilingual History of Canada
The French history of Canada can be traced back to Jacques Cartier’s 1534 voyage. King Francis I of France sent Cartier to find a trade route to Asia. Despite indigenous people living on the land, Cartier declared the area for France. Cartier is credited with naming the area “Canada” but he took the name from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata” which means village.
Cartier ultimately made three voyages along the St. Lawrence River but never found valuable minerals or gems so the French crown lost interest in Canada. While Cartier never established a French colony, he laid the groundwork for future French expansion into the area.
In the early 1600s, the profitable fur trade renewed French interest in Canada. Samuel de Champlain established the first French colony in Canada, as a way to boost France’s participation in the fur trade. Champlain is celebrated as the Father of New France.
While France’s power was growing in Canada, the British were also expanding their territories into parts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The two European world powers entered into the Seven Years’ War to fight for global dominance. France lost the war and gave control of Canada to the British in 1763.
In 1867, the Dominion of Canada united the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. This allowed Canada to operate as a country, not a British colony, but it wasn’t until 1982 that Canada became fully independent from Britain.
After the Dominion was established, French was made the official language of Quebec. 90% of the country’s French speakers live in Quebec today. While French and English are both official national languages in Canada, Quebec only uses French for provincial operations.
What Languages Are Used in Schools?
Although Canada is a bilingual country, most schools use English as the primary language for instruction. Students in Quebec, however, are required to attend primary and secondary school in French with few exceptions.
To promote bilingualism, French is primarily taught as a second language in English-speaking schools and English is taught in French-speaking schools.
For post-secondary education, students can decide to attend either a French or English language university as both operate in Canada.
Additional Languages Spoken in Canada
13% of Canada’s population is reported to speak a language other than English and French at home. Following English and French, the most common languages in Canada are Mandarin, Cantonese, and Punjabi.
Over 70 indigenous languages are also used in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, 189,000 people speak an indigenous language as their first language. Inuktitut and Cree, are the two indigenous languages most widely spoken at home.
While multilingualism is growing in Canada, Quebec is trying to retain its French Canadian cultural heritage by maintaining French as the primary language. A new law passed in May requires French to be used by small businesses and limits the number of students who can study at English-speaking junior colleges.
Canada’s official languages showcase how history continues to impact the country’s culture and traditions today.
Want to dive into other interesting language stories? Check out the ALTA Beyond Words Blog for more.
Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.