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People shop in Chinatown in Vancouver on Feb. 5, 2021.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The number of people who speak an Indigenous language appears to have grown smaller, according to new data from Statistics Canada, though the agency underlines difficulty in acquiring responses for the 2021 census.

On Wednesday, Statscan said the total number of people who last year reported speaking an Indigenous language is about 243,000, down from around 251,000 in 2016. All age groups besides the youngest category saw a decline in those who could identify as speaking an Indigenous language. However, the agency said the numbers are not an accurate representation of the true count, since they were unable to obtain data from 63 communities.

Statscan attributes the complication in data collection to COVID-19, though documents obtained by The Canadian Press earlier this year suggest participation rates were also “dampened by the uncovering of burial sites at former Indigenous residential schools,” as well as forest fires that disrupted the lives of many Indigenous families in northern Ontario and in Western Canada.

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Spokesperson Eric Caron-Malenfant did not speak to the report, but said more accurate information would be released by the agency in the September census release, when data relating to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people will be published.

Despite an overall decline in the number of people speaking an Indigenous language, the number for children aged 8 and under is up, from 11,715 to 28,755 – suggesting a greater drive to teach Indigenous languages to new generations.

Kevin Lewis, a Cree teacher and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said the demand for fluent speakers is growing, and younger generations – raised on platforms like TikTok – are finding innovative ways to make Indigenous languages more approachable.

“They’re making Cree fun,” said Mr. Lewis, who is from Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation.

He said when it comes to Cree, he sees two demographics interested in learning the language. One is residential-school survivors, who are giving opportunities to their children and grandchildren to learn a language they were denied the ability to speak. The other, he said, are survivors of the Sixties Scoop who as children were removed from their home communities by social workers and are now trying to find their roots.

French, English and European declines

The number of French and European language speakers in Canada also declined widely between 2016 and 2021.

Statistics Canada said Wednesday that English and French remained the most commonly spoken languages in the country, with nine in 10 Canadians speaking one of the two regularly. But the proportion of the population reporting French as their first language shrank in all provinces and territories except for Yukon; even Quebec saw a 1.25-per-cent decline.

The data showed that a quarter of all Canadians have a mother tongue other than English or French, and 4.6 million people – 12.7 per cent of the population – predominantly speak a language other than English or French. The latter figure is up five percentage points from 1991, a 64-per-cent increase.

Meanwhile, there were significant declines in those reporting European mother-tongue languages – Italian fell from 407,000 to 366,000 and German fell from 404,000 to 303,000, for example.

Mr. Caron-Malenfant said this decline can be attributed to an aging population and a lack of young people immigrating from European countries to take their place.

“A lot of Italians, for example, came to Canada before 1980 and this population is now aging and there are not so many people from Italy who have immigrated in a recent period,” he said.

South and East Asian representation

Four in 10 Canadians can speak fluently in more than one language, and one in 11 can speak three or more.

The numbers of people whose mother tongue is Mandarin or Punjabi, the third- and fourth-most spoken languages nationwide, have grown significantly, with the former increasing from roughly 610,000 in 2016 to 730,000 in 2021 and the latter increasing from 543,000 to 763,000.

Cantonese, which was knocked out of fourth place by Punjabi, grew less than 4 per cent during the reported period, from 594,000 to 610,000. That is in sharp contrast to the previous census, when between 2011 and 2016, the number of Canadians reporting Cantonese as their mother tongue grew a whopping 35 per cent, from 388,000 to 590,000. Statscan says this is an anomaly explained by the fact that prior to the 2016 census, anyone who reported speaking Chinese without specifying what branch of the language they spoke would be classified as a Mandarin speaker.

Other South Asian languages also saw marked increases in the numbers reporting them as their mother tongues, including Hindi (133,000 to 224,000), Tagalog (510,000 to 590,000) and Urdu (243,000 to 297,000).


Out of all provinces, British Columbia and Ontario take the top spots for populations who speak languages besides English or French predominantly, at 17.1 per cent and 15.7 per cent. However, if territories are included, Nunavut has the largest such demographic with 42.2 per cent of non-English/French speakers, the majority of whom speak Inuktitut. The province with the lowest number of non-English or French speakers is Newfoundland, at 1.4 per cent.

The most common non-English or French language in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax is Mandarin, while in Calgary and Edmonton it is Punjabi. In Montreal, it’s Spanish, and in Thunder Bay, Italian.

With files from The Canadian Press

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