Statistical Portrait of the French-Speaking Immigrant Population Outside Quebec (1991 to 2006)

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by René Houle and Jean-Pierre Corbeil


This report concerns French-language immigration outside Quebec and its recent evolution, focusing on its numbers, its geographic distribution and its demographic and social characteristics. This statistical portrait will mainly use the concept of first official language spoken (FOLS), which is now widely used as a criterion for defining linguistic groups in studies on official language minorities. The Francophone immigrant population outside Quebec is comprised of two groups: those who have only French as their first official language spoken (French FOLS immigrants) and those who have both French and English (French-English FOLS immigrants).

The Francophone immigrant population living outside Quebec is fairly small, both in absolute numbers and in relation to either the French-speaking population or the immigrant population as a whole. However, the relative weight of Francophone immigrants within the French-speaking population has increased, going from 6.2% to 10% between 1991 and 2006, while their weight within the overall immigrant population has varied more moderately, and in 2006 it was, at most, less than 2%.

The majority of Francophone immigrants outside Quebec—70%—are concentrated in Ontario. Furthermore, two-thirds of French-speaking immigrants live in three metropolitan areas: Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.

In Canada outside Quebec, French-English FOLS immigrants, numbering 76,100 in the 2006 Census, are slightly more numerous than French FOLS immigrants, who number 60,900. In some cities, especially Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, this characteristic is more prevalent, with French-English FOLS immigrants outnumbering their French FOLS counterparts by almost two to one. The demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of these two FOLS groups are sometimes quite different.

International immigration to Canada has undergone a rapid transformation in recent decades. Immigrants of European origin have tended to give way to immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America. In this regard, French FOLS immigrants stand out from other immigrants in that a large proportion of them come from Africa. One of the consequences of this trend has been to change the composition of the French FOLS immigrant population; in 2006, Blacks made up 26% of that population, compared to 5% of the other two immigrant groups.

Francophone immigrants appear to be a fairly young population (characterized by a large proportion of persons age 0 to 19) when compared to non-Francophone immigrants. This characteristic is partly due to the quite distinctive age composition of the French-English FOLS immigrant population, which includes a large proportion of young persons aged 10 to 24, a much higher proportion than for French FOLS immigrants and non-Francophone immigrants.

There are major differences in Interprovincial migration patterns between Francophones and non-Francophones living in Canada outside Quebec. Whereas Francophones tend to settle in Quebec when they migrate within Canada, non-Francophones tend instead to choose one of the other nine provinces, especially Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. In Quebec, the patterns are exactly the reverse: Quebec Francophones, whether they be native-born or immigrants, migrate relatively little to the other provinces, whereas a much larger proportion of non-Francophones leave the province. Overall, the movement of Francophone immigrants from the rest of Canada to Quebec does not offset the reverse movement from Quebec to the rest of Canada, and the net interprovincial migration of Francophone immigrants is markedly in favour of Canada outside Quebec. In relative terms, the net migration of Francophone immigrants is even greater than that of Canadian-born Francophones and of non-Francophone immigrants.

An examination of linguistic behaviours at home and at work among Francophone immigrants who have settled outside Quebec shows that there is competition between French and English spoken at home and used in the workplace. Among French FOLS immigrants, less than half report speaking French most often at home, while 32% report speaking English and 10% a non-official language. Among French-English FOLS immigrants, the use of French at home is not very widespread, even including the number of French speakers who report speaking that language at home on a regular basis (rather than most often).

In the workplace, the presence of English is quite widespread. Among all the groups defined by first official language spoken (FOLS) and immigrant status, English largely dominates as the language used most often at work. Among French FOLS immigrants, 63% report using English most often at work.

Regional patterns show that the use of French declines from east to west: it is more widespread in the Atlantic provinces, especially New Brunswick; it remains high in northern Ontario and Ottawa and reaches its lowest level in Toronto (and southern Ontario in general) and in the two provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

The transmission of French depends on both the type of couple with children in their home and the context in which that language is used. French is firstly transmitted by couples in which both partners are solely French FOLS: in their case, the majority of minor children have French as their mother tongue, speak it most often at home and have it as their first official language spoken. The situation is entirely different for the other types of couples, where the transmission of English or a non-official language dominates. The context is also important. As a mother tongue, French is transmitted to 25% of children; it is transmitted to 34.4% of children as a home language (language spoken at least on a regular basis at home) and to 36.6% of children as the first official language spoken (FOLS). English is highly competitive in all contexts: as a mother tongue, English (excluding cases of simultaneous transmission of French and English) is transmitted to 28% of children, as a home language to 63% of children and as a FOLS to 58% of children. In the three cases of intergenerational transmission, English outranks French in terms of the number of children to whom the language is transmitted. As to non-official languages, their transmission to minor children is substantial and more widespread than the transmission of French: 47% of the children have a non-official language as their mother tongue and nearly the same proportion, 46%, use a non-official language at least on a regular basis at home (without counting cases where a non-official language is transmitted simultaneously with French or English).

Immigrants with French as their first official language spoken (FOLS) stand out both from Canadian-born Francophones and the rest of the immigrants (French-English FOLS and non-Francophones) in terms of their education level and the characteristics of diplomas obtained. They have an education level similar to that of French-English FOLS immigrants but higher than that of Canadian-born Francophones and non-Francophone immigrants, for both men and women. French FOLS immigrants stand out from the other immigrant groups in that a larger proportion of them obtained their diploma or certificate in Canada. Furthermore, among those who obtained their diploma or certificate abroad, a larger proportion obtained it in Western Europe, primarily in a Francophone country, with France the leading one.

A lower proportion of French FOLS immigrants acquired a university-level diploma or certificate in engineering compared to other immigrants (French-English FOLS and non-Francophones).

Few differences are observed among immigrants as to their labour market participation, although non-Francophone immigrants are less likely to be unemployed than French FOLS or French-English FOLS immigrants. Instead, it is the socioeconomic characteristics that determine the extent to which immigrants are integrated into the Canadian labour market. The period of arrival in Canada is a major factor in this regard, as is the continent of birth—African immigrants appear to be at a particular disadvantage.


International immigration is one of the factors that contribute the most to the growth of Canada's population and the evolution of the linguistic situation in Canada. In the 2006 Census, 6.2 million persons, or nearly one Canadian in five, were foreign-born. Furthermore, between 2001 and 2006, Canada received approximately 1.1 million newcomers, representing a 13.6% increase in its immigrant population, whereas by comparison the Canadian-born population grew by 3.3%.

This report focuses on French-language immigration outside Quebec. Overall, Francophone minority communities outside Quebec received little benefit from the demographic contribution of international immigration, owing to the strong propensity of these immigrants to integrate into communities with an English-speaking majority. Moreover, the phenomenon of French-language immigration outside Quebec has become a matter of interest fairly recently, as has the question of its contribution to the development and growth of official-language minorities.

In 2006, whereas 95% of the Canadian-born population outside Quebec had English as its first official language spoken, this was the case with 92% of the immigrant population. Conversely, while French was the first official language spoken for nearly 5% of the Canadian-born population, the corresponding proportion was no more than 2.5% of the immigrant population, including the roughly 1.4% having both French and English as their first official language spoken.

In September 2006, the Citizenship and Immigration Canada—Francophone Minority Communities Steering Committee launched the Strategic Plan to Foster Immigration to Francophone Minority Communities. The main objectives of this plan are to increase the number of French-speaking immigrants in Francophone-minority communities and to facilitate their reception and their social, cultural and economic integration within these communities.

In June 2008, the Canadian government published the second Five-year Action Plan on Official Languages, entitled "Roadmap for Canada's Linguistic Duality 2008-2013: Acting for the Future." The Roadmap rests on two pillars: the participation of all Canadians in linguistic duality and support for official language minority communities. It provides for investment to be spread across five key sectors, including immigration.

On this subject, the Roadmap states that "[a]llocating funds for research and data analysis will make it possible to better target issues related to Francophone immigration outside of Quebec, and to address the various needs of the communities, the provinces and territories, and employers."

In light of these objectives, Citizenship and Immigration Canada has commissioned Statistics Canada to prepare a statistical portrait of the French-speaking immigrant population outside Quebec. This portrait will present information on the demographic, linguistic, social and economic characteristics of Francophone immigration in French-speaking minority communities. For this purpose, data will be drawn from Canadian censuses since 1991. It is important to note that in 2006, the census included no less than six questions or sub-questions from which information on official languages can be obtained, namely on knowledge of official languages, language spoken most often at home, other languages spoken on a regular basis at home, mother tongue, language used most often at work and other languages used on a regular basis at work.

This analytical report will deal with changes since 1991 in the number of French-speaking immigrants outside Quebec and their relative share of the immigrant population outside Quebec. It will also provide information on their geographic distribution in 2006, with particular emphasis on census metropolitan areas. A second section will provide information on the geographic origins of French-speaking immigrants and their visible minority status. The third and fourth sections will examine the age structure of French-speaking immigrants and the level of interprovincial migration as factors that may influence how that population evolves. Linguistic behaviours at home and at work and the phenomenon of intergenerational language transmission will be examined in subsequent sections. Finally, two major sections of this report will provide information on these immigrants' education and different aspects of their participation in the labour market.

Criteria for the definition of French-speaking immigrant outside Quebec

Before we begin presenting the results contained in this report, it is important to focus on how this analytical document defines the linguistic groups discussed. The question, then, is what criteria were used here to define what constitutes a French-speaking immigrant. For example, how is a Francophone defined? The fact is that there is no standard definition of who is a Francophone. For historical reasons,1 Statistics Canada has generally used the criterion of mother tongue, that is, the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood at the time of the census. However, other criteria are also used, and they lend themselves to developing definitions of French-speaking persons that may be either more inclusive or more restrictive. Thus, the question arises as to whether the definition of Francophone should refer to persons who have French as their mother tongue, those who have French as their first official language spoken or those who speak French either most often or on a regular basis at home. Or should a broad definition be considered? This would be one that would include all French speaking immigrants, or indeed more persons yet if we add those young children who do not speak French but who have at least one parent for whom this is the first language learned and still understood.

Additionally, in choosing a strategy for estimating a linguistic group, it is important to take at least two main factors into account. On the one hand, if the objective is to enumerate the population by considering all linguistic groups on the same basis, by treating them symmetrically and creating mutually exclusive categories to estimate them (e.g., English, French, others), this implies an appropriate distribution of multiple responses. On the other hand, if the objective is to focus attention on a single linguistic group (e.g., Francophones), the criteria for belonging can be broadened without concerning ourselves about the implicit overlaps between linguistic groups.

In this statistical portrait of French-speaking immigrants living outside Quebec, the main concept used will be that of the first official language spoken (FOLS), which is now widely used as a criterion of linguistic definition in studies on official language minorities. The fact is that changes over the years in the composition of the Canadian population tend to call for a redefinition or expansion of the concept of Francophone group or community insofar as a significant number of persons whose mother tongue is neither French nor English nevertheless use French either predominantly or on a regular basis in their daily lives.

The decision to create the concept of first official spoken learned was based on a number of considerations. First, the sizable growth of international immigration since the mid-1980s has had the effect of increasing the size of the population with a mother tongue other than English or French in Canada as a whole (20% in 2006), with such persons often being designated by the term "allophones."

Since an allophone cannot become a Francophone based on mother tongue but may become one by adopting French as the language spoken most often at home or in the public sphere, the question arises as to how to designate individuals' first official language or, more specifically, how to allocate allophones between French and English based on their reported knowledge of one or the other of the official languages.

It was this line of enquiry that led to defining different variants of the concept of first official language spoken (Statistics Canada, 1989). That concept echoed the spirit of the new version of the Official Languages Act (1988)2, which stipulates, in section 32 (2), that the government may have regard to "the number of persons composing the English or French linguistic minority population of the area served by an office or facility, the particular characteristics of that population and the proportion of that population to the total population of that area."

The concept of first official language was chosen by the federal government, in December 1991, in the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations. Section 2 of the Regulations describes the method used to determine "the first official language spoken," namely the first of the two variants presented in Statistics Canada (1989), a method that successively takes account of the responses to the questions on knowledge of official languages, mother tongue and language spoken most often at home. The "first official language spoken" variable is thus not a census question but is instead derived from three questions in the linguistic module of the census.

This report will therefore draw a statistical portrait of French-speaking immigrants outside Quebec, who will also be indiscriminately referred to Francophone immigrants, using mainly the "first official language spoken" variable. In keeping with the practice of the Treasury Board Secretariat, the count of the population having French as the first official language spoken (FOLS) will include persons having only French as their FOLS and half of those persons who have both French and English as their FOLS, that is, persons to whom it is not possible to assign either French or English on the basis of the responses to the three variables mentioned above. However, on more than one occasion, we will present the categories "French" FOLS and "French-English" FOLS separately, since these two sub-populations differ in their socio-demographic characteristics and their linguistic practices.


  1. One advantage of statistics based on mother tongue is that they are approximately comparable extending back over more than half a century.
  2. Statistics Canada (1989), population estimates by first official language spoken, reference no. 47013.


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