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French Canadians in Canada

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    French Canadians are by far Canada’s largest minority, with some 7.2 million (20.6 per cent) Canadians having French as their mother tongue in the 2016 Canadian Census. French Canadians are considered to be one of the country’s three founding nations, along with English Canadians and indigenous peoples.  Most are Catholic and trace their heritage to French colonists who settled in the Atlantic region and along the St Lawrence River in the 1600s and 1700s. French is one of Canada’s two official languages, along with English, and it enjoys special protection under the Canadian Constitution. Many French-speakers consider the homeland of French culture in North America to be the province of Quebec, where the large majority (6.2 million in the 2016 Census) of native Frenchspeakers are based. Not all French-speakers are of French descent, especially in modern-day Quebec, and not all people of French-Canadian heritage are exclusively or primarily French-speaking. 

    Historical Context

    In 1993, for the first time, Quebecers overwhelmingly voted for a pro-independence party, the Bloc Québécois, to represent them in Canada’s Parliament. So many were elected, in fact, that they formed the official opposition and second biggest caucus of any party in the national legislature. A year later, a separatist party, the Parti Québécois (PQ), was re-elected to the provincial legislature of Quebec on a platform favouring independence from Canada (the PQ was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1976 but had been out of power since 1985). A provincial referendum was held on 30 October 1995, and the pro-independence movement lost by the narrowest of margins – just one percentage point.  The PQ and the Bloc express the grievances of many French Canadians who feel they are in a subordinate position in the country they helped found. Outside Quebec, many French-speakers feel marginalized, ignored and under pressure to assimilate into English Canadian culture. Within Quebec, many see independence from Canada as the culmination of more than 200 years of resistance to the British conquest of French Canada between 1759 and 1763. After this conquest, attempts were made to assimilate the French. They were forced to swear allegiance to the Crown; British authorities refused to recognize the Roman Catholic religion; and French administrative structures were eliminated. 

    Within a few years, however, this policy was muted as the American War of Independence broke out in the British colonies to the south. Desperate for French support, British officials passed the Quebec Act of 1774, restoring the power of the Roman Catholic Church and permitting use of the French civil code, which is still in place today. When the war ended, thousands of Americans who had sided with the British – the so-called United Empire Loyalists – flooded north and threatened to reduce the French to minority status. Most settled in what became known as Upper Canada (the southern part of the present-day province of Ontario). 

    Difficult economic conditions and political discontent prompted a major rebellion by French Canadians in 1837-8. British forces defeated the rebels in a bloody military campaign, executing many of their leaders and deporting others. An inquiry for the British government by Lord Durham found ‘two nations at war within one state’. Durham viewed French Canadians with contempt and recommended that they be assimilated. The resulting Union Act of 1840 curtailed what limited political power French Canadians had won back; the French language was not permitted in the colony’s legislative assembly; British immigration was encouraged, and, within a decade, the descendants of the French settlers were in the minority. 

    Under these conditions, the French worked to attain limited rights within the colonial political system. Years later, they regained recognition of their language. On a social level, their institutions became conservative and the people devoted themselves to preserving the Roman Catholic faith, the French language and a rural-based way of life in the face of powerful assimilationist pressures. 

    French Canadians, despite a high birth rate, found themselves increasingly outnumbered in Canada by English-speakers due to the federal government’s preference for immigrants from English-speaking countries. The addition of new western provinces to the federation meant a further erosion of the French Canadian position. French Canadians grew particularly incensed over Canadian support for British foreign policy. During both world wars, major rioting occurred when conscription was forced upon Quebec. As French Canadians in Quebec became more urbanized, resentment grew against their economic domination by the Montreal-based Anglophone elite and the stifling nature of the old Roman Catholic institutions that still controlled the schools, social and cultural life.  

    The ‘quiet revolution’

    In the early 1960s, the resentments burst into the open, ushering in a 30-year period of social, cultural, economic and political transformation known as the ‘quiet revolution’. All levels of Quebec society experienced sweeping change. Government was democratized, measures were taken to strengthen the French language and Québécois culture, the provincial government took over the running of education, health care and social services from the Roman Catholic Church and French was promoted in the workplace. 

    Another key development was the birth of ‘Quebec Inc.’, a vast project to strengthen Francophone-owned private businesses, develop a Québécois middle class and build strong public companies that would play an interventionist role in the Quebec economy. The creation of the provincial-owned electrical utility, Hydro-Québec, was a key part of this process. Today, it is one of the world’s largest power companies. A network of credit unions, the Caisses Populaires, was formed that today has tens of billions of dollars in assets. Hydro-Québec and a vastly expanded civil service provided the growing Francophone middle class with new job opportunities. The provincial government created a new network of colleges and universities accessible to Francophones. Québécois culture flourished. 

    These changes were forced by widespread social unrest within Quebec. Trade union militancy reached unprecedented levels. A strike called by the ‘Common Front’ in 1972 briefly brought the provincial economy to a halt. Some 10,000 students marched in Montreal demanding that McGill University, the Anglophone elite’s bastion, be turned into a Francophone institution. Through the 1960s, a bombing campaign was conducted by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), an urban guerrilla organization that professed a blend of nationalist and left-wing ideology. In October 1970, the FLQ provoked an international crisis by abducting the British Consul and then murdering the provincial Minister of Labour. At the request of the Quebec government, Canada invoked the 1914 War Measures Act, sent federal troops into Quebec and arrested hundreds of political activists across the country, most of whom were later found to have had no FLQ links. The harsh state response encouraged sympathy for the FLQ and Quebecers attended large rallies in support of the organization’s demands. 

    In 1976, the fledgling Parti Québécois under the leadership of nationalist intellectual René Lévesque was elected to Quebec’s provincial legislature (the National Assembly) in a surprise victory. The party did not favour outright separation from Canada, but a form of sovereignty-association in which nominally independent Quebec would retain strong formal ties with Canada. 

    The PQ also continued efforts of previous governments to transform Quebec society, further promoting small and medium Francophone-owned businesses, democratizing the state and strengthening use of the French language in schools and the workplace. The party’s initiatives were popular enough that, despite its 1980 referendum loss, it won a second term as the provincial government in the 1981 election. 

    Despite the political and social advances made in Quebec during the 1960s and 1970s, alarm still grew among many Quebecers about the weak state of the French language and culture. Their fears were fuelled by a falling birth rate in Quebec and growing numbers of non-French-speaking immigrants who usually preferred learning English to French. In 1968, the provincial government established a commission into the French language and ways of promoting it. The commission recommended in its report of 1972 that French be made Quebec’s official language and that measures be taken to increase the use of French at work and in schools. In 1974, the Liberal Party government of Robert Bourassa adopted a new and controversial language law that made French the official language and placed severe restrictions on parents’ right to choose their children’s language of education. 

    Further measures were put in place by the PQ government, which issued a French Language Charter in 1977, known as Bill 101, and created a watchdog body to monitor the status of French in Quebec. The PQ also ruled that French was to be the language of government administration, government contracts and collective bargaining agreements. Bill 101 is often credited with improving the position of French in the province. The 1981 census showed that the number of Anglophone Quebecers dropped by nearly 12 per cent, from 800,000 to 706,000, in the five previous years. 

    The ‘quiet revolution’ also saw the disappearance of a large wage gap between Anglophones and Francophones in Quebec. In 1970, Quebec’s Anglophones were the highest income earners in the province. By the 1990s bilingual Francophones earned an average 3.5 per cent more than bilingual Anglophones. Economists point to two reasons for the changes: a surge in education among Francophones and the exodus of educated Anglophones from Quebec. 

    The new laws helped Francophones, but they have also been widely condemned as being repressive and punitive by minorities within Quebec, who are also alarmed by frequent outbursts of extremist anti-minority sentiment by some white Francophones. Starting in the mid-1970s, thousands of English-speakers and other Quebec minorities left the province for other parts of Canada, complaining of restrictive language laws and the prospect of ‘sovereignty’ (i.e. secession from Canada). 

    In 1988, part of the French Language Charter was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as a violation of the human rights of Quebec’s non-Francophone minorities. But the provincial government, controlled at the time by the federalist Liberal Party, was able to maintain key sections of the Charter by invoking the so-called ‘notwithstanding clause’ of the Canadian Constitution. The clause gives provinces a loophole they can temporarily use to allow provincial laws to stand, despite the fact they would be otherwise in violation of constitutional rights. 

    The Liberal government’s invocation of this clause provoked great division in Quebec. Three English-speaking Liberal cabinet ministers resigned in protest. Anglophone-rights activists and dissident Liberals formed the Equality Party, which won four seats from the Liberals in the 1989 provincial election. With time, however, tensions over language gave way to tensions over the more explosive issue of sovereignty, which is opposed by 90-95 per cent of non-Francophones and is divisive even among Francophones. The Equality Party lost all its seats in the 1994 election, as Anglophone voters, concerned by the PQ’s sovereignty plans, rallied to the Liberals. Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau was later forced to resign after making disparaging comments about the ‘ethnic’ vote. 

    Tensions also escalated between Québécois and First Nations in the province over two key issues – Quebec sovereignty and natural resource development. The PQ claimed Quebec could separate from Canada, taking with it vast traditional First Nations territories, but that the First Nations did not possess a similar right to separate from an independent Quebec, or even to remain within Canada should Quebec leave. This position angered First Nations people, who pointed to United Nations standards on the right of all peoples to self-determination and to choose their own political status. First Nations people in Quebec worried that their rights would suffer in an independent Quebec and expressed concern that the PQ cabinet included ministers who had made racist remarks against First Nations Canadians. 

    Disputes over First Nations’ land claims were at the centre of a number of civil disturbances in Quebec. Due to relatively lax environmental protection regulations, resource companies have devastated large tracts of traditional First Nations land in Quebec. The Quebec government’s own entities, particularly Hydro-Québec, have been conspicuous among the culprits. 


    The PQ’s 1980 referendum defeat threw the project of separation into disarray and forced the party to re-evaluate its priorities. It dedicated itself to being a left-of-centre party that promised good government and would work for Quebec’s rights within the Canadian federation. The PQ lent its political machine to candidates of federal parties perceived to be favourable to Quebec interests. But the party appeared to have lost its raison d’être, especially when it dropped its long-standing goal of sovereignty in 1985, the same year it finally lost office to the Liberal Party. In the 1980s, sovereignty was widely thought to be a spent force. 

    But the seeds of a new discontent were sown in 1982, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau repatriated the Canadian Constitution from Britain. Quebec, at the time still ruled by the PQ, refused to sign the new constitutional document, claiming it promoted greater centralization of power in Ottawa and weakened the provinces. In the 1984 federal election, Trudeau’s Liberal government was replaced by the Progressive Conservative Party, led by Quebec lawyer Brian Mulroney. Mulroney campaigned on a promise to bring Quebec back into the Constitution. He orchestrated two attempts to do so, both of which failed, and set the stage for the PQ’s second referendum campaign in 1995. 

    The first attempt, the Meech Lake Accord, would have recognized Quebec’s distinctive identity and culture and its powers to protect the French language. Meech Lake failed after not receiving the consent of all 10 provinces within a required period of time. Another effort quickly followed, the Charlottetown Accord of 1992, which would have granted Quebec most of the powers in Meech Lake. It was placed before the Canadian public in a referendum, but, despite the endorsement of every major federal party and all ten premiers, a majority of both Quebecers and of Canadians in the rest of the country voted it down. Many Quebecers felt they were not given enough, while many Canadians felt they had given too much. 

    The defeat of the Charlottetown Accord caused separatist sentiment to surge as many Quebecers came to believe constitutional change was impossible. Anti-French incidents in other provinces further inflamed Quebecers. In federal elections in 1993, a new federal party favouring Quebec independence, the Bloc Québécois, won a majority of the province’s share of seats in parliament. The next year, the PQ swept into power in Quebec promising a second chance for separation. 

    The referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec of 30 October 1995 almost removed Canada’s geographically largest province from the country. The sovereignty option was favoured by 49.4 per cent of voters, compared to 50.6 per cent who voted against it. Restricted to Francophones only, the sovereigntists would have won the referendum by a 60-40 margin. But Quebec’s 1 million strong non-Francophone minority voted overwhelmingly against separation and expressed concerns during the campaign about xenophobic tendencies in the PQ government. Both sides called the result a victory – federalists because they had won the vote in absolute numbers, separatists because English Canada had been sent a resounding message: Canada has to change or it will fall apart. 

    On September 30, 1996, the Attorney General of Canada referred three questions pertaining to Quebec secession to the Supreme Court of Canada. On 20 August 1998, the Supreme Court answered these questions by issuing an opinion. It concluded that the National Assembly, legislature or government of Quebec does not have, either under Canadian law or international law, the right to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally. 

    In 1999, the parliament passed the Clarity Act, legislation designed to give effect to the opinion in the Quebec Secession Reference rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998. The Supreme Court emphasized the requirement for clarity both in terms of a clear question on secession and a clear majority voting in favour of a clear question on secession. Thus the Clarity Act set out the conditions under which the federal government would recognize a vote by any province to leave Canada. Controversially, the Act gave the House of Commons the power to decide whether a proposed referendum question was considered clear and allowed it to decide whether a clear majority has expressed itself in any referendum. It is widely considered by Quebec sovereigntists as indefensible and thus inapplicable. Indeed, a contradictory ‘Act respecting the exercise of the fundamental rights and prerogatives of the Quebec people and the Quebec State’ was introduced in the National Assembly of Quebec only two days after the Clarity Act had been introduced in the House of Commons. 

    French-speakers outside Quebec

    The Acadian population (descendants of French colonists who settled in Acadia) make up about a third of the population of New Brunswick (Acadians are also present in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island), which is the only officially bilingual province in Canada. It has special legislation to protect the French language and French has official status as a language of education. When the British first conquered the Acadian lands, known as L’Acadie, from the French in the eighteenth century, they attempted to deport most of the population because they were considered a security risk in a militarily strategic area. The ancestors of Acadians were dispersed as far away as Louisiana, although many were able to return. Some Acadians are trying to obtain redress for the traumas suffered by their ancestors. 

    In Ontario, efforts by French Canadians to have French recognized as an official language by the provincial government have run into heavy opposition. Not all French Canadians speak their mother tongue fluently and many have become assimilated into the majority culture. 

    French Canadians once formed a majority of the province of Manitoba. Today they represent only 3.2 per cent of the population, numbering just under 41,000 people in the 2016 Census.  The protection of French has been a thorny issue in Manitoba for over 100 years. In 1980 a Supreme Court ruling overturned the previous English-only policy of the Manitoba government. But much of the public appears to oppose recognition of French as an official language and a 1984 attempt to make French and English official languages failed. 

    In 2005, Acadian groups held a series of events to remember the 250th anniversary of the so-called Grand Dérangement, the mass expulsion of Acadians in 1755, considered by the Société Nationale de l’Acadie (SNA) as a form of genocide. Estimates on the total number of Acadians displaced in the Grand Dérangement range from 10,000 to 18,000. Acadians used the 250th anniversary as a platform for renewed efforts to seek apologies for the displacement, including from Queen Elizabeth II, who deferred the question to the judgment of the Canadian Parliament. The government officially designated 28 July as ‘A Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval’, commencing on 28 July 2005. 

    Current issues

    Support for Quebec secession appears to be in decline. While in the 2006 federal elections, the Bloc Québécois – the party committed to sovereignty for Quebec – retained 51 seats (all in Quebec) and 10.5 per cent of the popular vote for Canada as a whole (in the previous election they won 53 seats). This fell to just four seats in the 2011 elections – attributed in part to a rise in Conservative support in the traditional stronghold of Quebec – meaning it was not able to qualify as a formal party in the Ottowa parliament. While the 2015 elections saw it regain some seats, with a total of 10 seats, though this still fell short of the 12seat minimum for official as a party.  

    While Quebec-specific representation at the federal level is still a desire for many Québécois, the run up to the October 2018 provincial Quebec elections have been notable in that the issue of independence has largely been sidelined, with the main focus on other issues. A national survey by the Angus Reid Institute in 2016 found that 82 per cent of Quebecers sampled believed Quebec should stay in Canada, while 64 per cent of Francophone Quebecers stating that the issue of Quebec sovereignty is settled, and Quebec will remain in Canada. This is in agreement with the majority of Canadians who believe that Quebec should remain part of Canada.

    The election was won by Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a right-of-centre party that has never held power. The election led to significant losses for the Liberal Party (the previous incumbents) and the Parti Québécois. Another pro-independence party Québec Solidaire made gains, but unlike previous provincial elections, independence for Quebec was not a significant issue in the campaign.

    Updated June 2019

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