Since arriving in Montreal a year ago, Flavio Marques has had high hopes of remaining in Quebec – which is why he spends so much of his free time these days in French class.
“I want to get better, so I can stay here and go to school,” the 24-year-old from Portugal says in halting but functional French before heading into class at a community centre near his work.
Ironically, even in Montreal, Mr. Marques finds himself with limited options for real-world French immersion: he speaks his mother tongue most of the time at his job at a popular Portuguese rotisserie, as well as with the relatives who helped him to settle here.
His back-and-forth battle between French and his first language touches on an issue central to the province’s Parti Quebecois government. The PQ campaigned on a plan to encourage the use of French not only in public, but at home and at work too.
They may already have a head start, if numbers from the 2011 census are any indication.
Among Quebeckers whose first language is neither English nor French, the group to which Mr. Marques belongs, 24.1 per cent reported using French most often at home in 2011, up from 22.9 per cent in 2006 and 20.4 per cent in 2001, Statistics Canada reported Wednesday.
French was described as a “secondary language” — used on a regular basis, but not most often — by 15.9 per cent of those in Quebec whose mother tongue was neither of Canada’s two official languages, up from 15.7 per cent in 2006 and 14.3 per cent in 2001.
The number of people in Quebec who reported speaking French and a language other than English jumped to 5 per cent of the population in 2011, up from 3.8 per cent five years earlier and nearly twice the number in 2001.
The number of Quebeckers with a mother tongue other than French or English grew modestly to 12.8 per cent of the province’s population in 2011, up from 12.3 per cent five years earlier.
The new figures come at the end of an emotional and divisive year in Quebec politics that saw the province’s old language debates return to the forefront.
The unrest reached its climax in a shooting at the PQ election victory party last month that left one person dead. As he was led away by police, the accused gunman cried out in French, “The English are waking up.”
The PQ, which formed a fragile minority government following the vote, pledged to protect and promote the French language with a series of controversial policies related to education, the workplace and immigration.
Shortly after taking office, premier Pauline Marois called preserving the French language “the centre of my preoccupation.”
The PQ says it’s still studying how to strengthen the province’s landmark language law, Bill 101. Many of the policies put forward during the election campaign, however, were controversial.
Among the most contentious: a plan to extend Bill 101 to post-secondary education, limiting enrolment of francophones and immigrants at English-language junior colleges. French would also be the required language in small businesses with between 10 and 50 employees.
Other proposals targeted newcomers to Quebec. The PQ outlined a plan to prioritize immigrants who speak French at home over those who simply know the language, even if it sometimes means bringing in people with less job skills.
It also floated the idea of a new Quebec citizenship. Any future immigrant who wants to run for public office would have to, first of all, learn French, then pass the “citizenship” test.
The PQ feels the biggest threat to French, though, is on the island of Montreal – the arrival point for most new immigrants. Stopping the perceived decline in French in the city is “at the heart of our concerns,” Ms. Marois has said.
To that end, the PQ proposed new transit and housing measures on the island of Montreal to keep Quebecois de souche – “old-stock francophones” – from leaving for the suburbs.
Wednesday’s numbers, indeed, showed an increase in the proportion of Montreal residents who reported speaking French at home in combination with a language other than English – 8.7 per cent of the population, up from 6.7 per cent in 2006 and 5.2 per cent in 2001.
But the proportion of Montrealers speaking only French at home, 62.4 per cent in 2001, dropped to 56.5 per cent in 2011. So too did the proportion of English-only speakers: 9.9 per cent last year, down from 11.1 per cent in 2001.
Indeed, similar proportions are in play across Quebec, where the percentage of those who speak only French at home hit 72.8 per cent last year, down from 75.1 per cent five years earlier. The rest of Canada saw a similar English-only decline – 74.1 per cent, down from 77.1 per cent.
The worry among linguistic hardliners is that Montreal needs to stay French or the rest of the province will follow, much like the domino-effect theory from the Cold War, which warned that if one country turned communist the whole region could soon follow suit.
All of this may not be enough.
The face of the city is changing, and experts question whether any new policy will be enough to preserve the French-speaking status quo majority in the years to come. Marc Termote, a demographer at the Université de Montreal, said data from the past few decades shows “it takes a very long time” for non-francophone immigrants to start speaking French at home.
“It takes decades, one or two generations, and during that time there are always more and more immigrants,” Mr. Termote said.
For now, the PQ’s plans remain up in the air in a minority government situation where the PQ’s main opponents don’t share its views.
Regardless, newcomers appear ready to learn.
Francois Marien, a volunteer instructor at Mr. Marques’s school, said the students – many of whom are immigrants hoping to get permanent status – are amazingly motivated.
“The students are people that want to learn,” he said. “I have friends who work as high school teachers and they get really stressed because some of the students don’t want to be there. Here, there’s a really amazing dynamic.”
Marques, meanwhile, said he’s not dissuaded by the political rhetoric he’s heard about language and immigration. He wants to settle down here and have a family.
“When I first moved to Montreal I thought I didn’t want to stay, but now I really like it,” said Marques, who plans to become a mechanic.
Learning French, he said, “isn’t too hard, it’ll just take some time.”