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Quebec Premier Francois Legault answers a question during a press conference on the second day of the summer meeting of the Canada's Premiers in Victoria on July 12.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Statistics Canada surely did not time the release of language data from the 2021 Census to coincide with the launch of an election campaign in Quebec. But its publication of findings that confirm the decline of French within the province and across Canada are sure to light a fuse on the campaign trail as Premier François Legault calls for Ottawa to cede more powers to Quebec.

Neither did the federal agency likely consider the optics of releasing its report on the heels of the Aug. 15 Fête nationale de l’Acadie, the annual celebration of francophones in Atlantic Canada that marks the 1755 expulsion of thousands of their ancestors from the region by the British. Many ended up in Louisiana, where the French-language is today spoken by only a tiny minority of their descendants.

In May, as he revealed plans to seek full control over immigration policy if his Coalition Avenir Québec wins the Oct. 3 election, Mr. Legault warned that Quebec runs the risk of becoming another Louisiana without the ability to choose its own immigrants, including those who come to Quebec through the federal family reunification program. “It is a question of survival for our nation,” he said then.

Statistics Canada’s Wednesday report, showing that more newcomers to Quebec are using English as their first official language, will only serve to buttress Mr. Legault’s argument. The proportion of Quebeckers who primarily spoke English rose to 13 per cent in 2021 from 12 per cent in 2016, topping the one-million mark for the first time. The share who spoke predominantly French at home fell to 77.5 per cent from 79 per cent, despite extensive government efforts to “francize” new immigrants.

More than 70 per cent of Quebeckers who speak English as their first official language live on the Island of Montreal or in the suburban Montérégie region. The concentration of English speakers in and around the Quebec metropolis has long created linguistic tensions. Protecting Montreal’s “French face” is seen as imperative by most francophone Quebeckers, but many allophone newcomers to the city still gravitate toward English, sometimes even after attending French public schools.

And as Montreal goes, many fear, so goes the province. Which is why Bill 96 – the law adopted by Mr. Legault’s government in June that caps enrolment in English-language junior colleges among dozens of other measures aimed at protecting French – is seen by many francophones as a strict minimum.

Across Canada, French has been on the decline for decades despite Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s government adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969. In 1971, French was the first official language spoken by 27.2 per cent of Canadians. By 2016, the proportion had declined to 22.2 per cent. In 2021, it fell again to 21.4 per cent. Where will it stand in 2026? You don’t need a PhD to figure it out.

The dream of a bilingual Canada d’un océan à l’autre may never have been more than that. But the reduction of French to folkloric status everywhere outside Quebec and in pockets of New Brunswick and Northern Ontario is the writing on the wall. Between 2016 and 2021, the proportion of the population speaking French at home declined in every region of the country except Yukon, where it rose to 2.6 per cent from 2.4 per cent. In New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province, the share speaking French at home fell to 26.4 per cent from 28 per cent.

It may be fashionable among English-Canadian elites to enrol their kids in French immersion classes. But anemic rates of bilingualism hors Quebec and New Brunswick speak for themselves. Outside Quebec, Canadians who claimed an ability to conduct a conversation in both official languages dropped to 9.5 per cent from 9.8 per cent and down from a peak of 10.1 per cent two decades ago.

Even the federal public service, which once aspired to set an example, no longer prioritizes Canada’s official languages equally. In May, a Radio-Canada report showed that francophones are underrepresented in the upper echelons of the federal bureaucracy. Now, there is a push to waive French-English bilingualism requirements if applicants speak an Indigenous language or aspire to.

Removing barriers to career advancement faced by Indigenous people in Canada is a legitimate objective. But francophones argue it should not mean the diminution of the status of French within the public service. They worry that the appointment of Mary Simon as Governor-General, despite her inability to speak French, paves the way for more such nominations. They are not wrong to worry.

The latest census figures will exacerbate feelings of linguistic insecurity among francophone Quebeckers in particular. There will be consequences. We may witness a few of them on the campaign trail.

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