Quebec's anglophone population is declining, rather than booming, Statistics Canada said Thursday as the agency officially corrected a census finding that stoked political fires in Quebec's emotionally charged language debate.
The change is the result of a computer error that recorded some 55,000 people in last year's census as English speakers, when they really had French as their mother tongue. Correcting the mistake cut the increase in the anglophone population in half and pushed the francophone population up by more than 145,000 between 2011 and 2016.
Statistics Canada officials suggested the revisions did little to change the overall narrative captured in the census that showed an increase in the number of French speakers in the country, largely driven by Quebec.
The country's revised bilingualism rate dropped to 17.9 per cent from 18 per cent, but remains at an all-time high.
The census data originally indicated roughly one-half of the 57,325 increase in Quebec's anglophones over five years came from outside of the Montreal, a finding that puzzled experts, given trend lines and other information like school enrolment figures that pointed in the opposition direction.
What officials found was that a mistake in the online prompts for 61,000 respondents who did a follow-up step when they failed to complete the questionnaire and then had their answered flipped. A panel of outside experts reviewed the corrections before Statistics Canada released the figures almost a week after publicly reporting the mistake.
About 40 per cent of the wrongly classified responses were in Montreal.
Jean-Pierre Corbeil, who heads up the census language division at Statistics Canada, said the changes were more dramatically felt in communities with small English-speaking populations. In Quebec City, instead of some 6,400 anglophones residing in the city, there were roughly 660.
Statistics Canada now says anglophones make up 7.5 per cent of Quebec's population, rather than 8.1 per cent, and that English as a mother tongue declined by two-tenths of a percentage point in the overall share of the population between 2011 and 2016, instead of an increase of four-tenths of a percentage point, as first reported.
"From a community standpoint, these things are quite significant," said Jack Jedwab, executive vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies, who first flagged the issue. "So I'm not following in terms of the way it's being communicated that you can describe this as minimal in any way or a slight decrease to use those words."
Jedwab is asking the chief statistician to use the upcoming releases to do a long-term review of Quebec's anglophone and francophone populations to better understand how immigration and interprovincial migration has affected their numbers.
The originally reported jump in English-language speakers caused emotional ripples in Quebec, with provincial politicians talking about legislative means to ensure the survival of the French language in the province.
The revised figures are unlikely to allay the concerns of language alarmists who fear French will disappear over time as the language of everyday life in the province, particularly if Montreal — the province's largest city and economic driver — becomes an overwhelmingly English city, said Daniel Weinstock, director of McGill University's institute for health and social policy.
"The concern that is at the core of language alarmists is that it's implausible that you could imagine a society over time continuing to speak a language where its major city is comprised of a majority of citizens who don't speak that language as a first language," Weinstock said.
Census data to be released in November on the language used at work may give further insight into the future of French and English in the province.
Statistics Canada has released since February three collections of data from the latest five-year census. beginning with the overall population count and trends, followed by details about the country's rapidly aging population and then details about languages and families. Next month, the agency will release census data on incomes, followed by immigration and Indigenous Peoples numbers in October and figures detailing education, jobs and language used at work in November.
Statistics Canada officials are reviewing what went wrong with the latest release and implementing new processes to prevent similar mistakes in forthcoming reports.