The language situation in Canada with special regard to Quebec

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

25 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Facts about Canada
2.1. Geography, population and the political system of Canada
2.2. The history of Canada in relation to language contact
2.2.1. Early European colonisation
2.2.2. British rule
2.2.3. The Dominion of Canada and Canada’s independence

3. The Canadian population
3.1. The Canadian population by ethnic origin
3.2. The Canadian population by language

4. Official bilingualism in Canada

5. The exceptional position of Quebec

6. Conclusion


1 Introduction

Since its colonisation by Europeans the history of Canada has always been affected by the rivalry between two ethnic groups – the British and the French. This rivalry has slowly faded into a dualism which is still prominent in Canada. This dualism can be found in both Canada’s population and culture as well as in the fact that Canada has two official languages, French and English. This bilingualism of Canada will be the subject of this paper. I will not focus on the development of English in Canada in terms of a linguistic analysis though but will analyze the causes for this bilingualism instead. Furthermore I am going to analyze how both the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of Quebec – the only province that has a French speaking majority in the Canadian federation – have dealt with the existence of two major language groups.

In a first step I am going to give a general overview over Canada, including its geography, a brief look onto the composition of the Canadian population and the political system of Canada (2.1). The analysis of the political system is important to fully grasp the different levels of competency in Canada which will play a significant role in regard to legislation and jurisdiction of language laws in the Canadian federation and its provinces. Section 2.2 will deal with the history of Canada in relation to language contact. Starting with the early European colonisation (2.2.1) I am then going to analyze the period of British rule in Canada (2.2.2) before I am going to focus onto the time period starting with the foundation of the Dominion of Canada and Canada’s independence until today (2.2.3). Section 3 concentrates on the Canadian population in detail. While section 3.1 focuses on the Canadian population by ethnic origin, section 3.2 pays attention to the Canadian population by language. In section 4 I will analyze the official bilingualism in Canada, i.e. I will outline policies, constitutional provisions, and laws concerning bilingualism in Canada. Section 5 addresses the exceptional position of Quebec within the Canadian federation, especially with regard to its population and language legislation. In section 6 I will summarize my findings and will give an outlook on future language contact and language conflict in Canada.

2 Facts about Canada

In order to analyze the language contact and conflict between English and French in Canada I will first expose the basic facts about Canada concerning its geography, population and political system. These facts have been key determinants for the contact between the English and French speaking population. Furthermore I will outline the most fundamental historical facts that have laid the foundation for Canada’s official bilingualism – a bilingualism which is not only embedded in Canada’s political system (e.g. in various laws concerning language use that I am going to expose later on) but also in Canada’s culture and everyday life.

2.1 Geography, population and the political system of Canada

With a size of 9,984670 square kilometres (891,163 being continental waters) Canada is the second largest country in the world. Canada’s population amounts to roughly 31.3 million inhabitants (cf. 2006 Census) which means a population density of about 3.2 inhabitants per square kilometre (in comparison Germany has a population density of 236 inhabitants per square kilometre). Approximately 90% of the population live within 160 kilometres of the US border in the South while most parts in the North of Canada are nearly unsettled. About 80% live in urban areas, most of them in the metropolises Toronto (5.1 million inhabitants), Montreal (3.6 million inhabitants) and Vancouver (2.1 million inhabitants). The majority of the Canadian population lives in two adjacent provinces in the East – Ontario (ca. 12 million inhabitants) and Quebec (ca. 7.5 million inhabitants). The most populated provinces in the West are British Columbia (ca. 4 million inhabitants) and Alberta (ca. 3.2 million inhabitants). Quite interestingly the biggest territory (the difference between territories and provinces will be explained below) concerning the land area – Nunavut with a size of 2.1 million square kilometres – is at the same time the least populated area of Canada (29,325 inhabitants).

According to the CIA World Factbook Canada’s population consists of the following ethnic groups: British Isles origin 28%, French origin 23%, other European 15%, Amerindian 2%, other, mostly Asian, African, Arab 6%, mixed background 26%. The main religious beliefs are Roman Catholic (42.6%) and Protestant (23.3% including United Church 9.5%, Anglican 6.8%, Baptist 2.4%, Lutheran 2%). Nevertheless Canadians with unspecified beliefs (11.8%) or even with no religious belief at all (16%) represent more than one fourth of the total population. Canada is a monarchy. Head of State is the British Crown who is represented by a governor-general and provincial lieutenant-governors. They perform most of the Crown’s ceremonial roles (cf. Röhrich 1999: 18). Furthermore Canada is a parliamentary democracy. The government, composed of the prime minister and his/her cabinet, belongs to the parliament and depends on its confidence. The Canadian parliament itself comprises two chambers – the House of Commons and the Senate. While the House of Commons is directly elected by eligible voters, the senators are formally appointed by the governor-general but de facto by the prime minister, who proposes the candidates for the Senate. This vitiates the Senate’s “role as a representative of provincial populations or governments within the federal legislature” (Simeon et al. 2006: 96). The Senate could never fulfil this role completely anyway because the seats of the Senate are not apportioned on a provincial basis but on a regional basis. The fact that the members of the Senate are leading figures of public life, but not necessarily experienced politicians, implies a further weakening of the Senate so that “the Senate plays little role in working out the balance between federal and provincial governments” (ibid.). The weak role of the Senate and an exposed position of the prime minister[1] imply that legislature and executive are tightly bound together. This means that “power is highly concentrated in the hands of the executive, especially the first ministers (the federal prime minister and the provincial premiers)” (ibid.).

Canada is a constitutional federation. This means that political action is bound to constitutional principles which – inter alia – grant the institutional order of the parliamentary and federal system of government, and the democratic principle of liberty (cf. Lenz 2001: 267). The Canadian federation comprises ten provinces and, in addition, three territories – the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut – which are “established under federal legislation, covering the vast, resource-rich, but thinly populated Canadian North” (Simeon et al. 2006: 93). The major difference between the provinces and the territories is the degree of governmental self-control. While the provinces hold a high degree of autonomy many administrative tasks of the territories are executed by the federal government. Recently though these three territories “have been moving closer to provincial status” (ibid.).

2.2 The history of Canada in relation to language contact

The history of Canada can be divided into three eras – the early European colonisation, the British colonial rule and the foundation of the Dominion of Canada. Each era has influenced the language contact in Canada and thus will be looked into in the following sections.

2.2.1 Early European colonisation

In 1497 the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto (English: John Cabot) was searching a shorter way to Asia under the patronage of Henry VII of England when he landed on Newfoundland[2] and claimed it for England. This voyage and the one a year later on which Cabot explored and charted the Northern East coast of North America up to Maryland gave England a claim by right of discovery to an indefinite amount of area of Eastern North America. John Cabot’s reports of rich fishing waters lured French and English fishermen to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia who also engaged in countertrade with the Canadian Natives.

In 1524 the Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazona explored the North American coast line from North Carolina to Newfoundland in the name of King Francis I of France, giving France some claim to these lands as well. Ten years later, in 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the Gulf of Saint Lawrence as well as the shores of the Saint Lawrence River and claimed this region as Nouvelle France for France. As natural resources were not to be discovered French interest in that region ceased to exist until 1605.

In 1605 the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain established the first permanent European settlement in Port Royal, Nova Scotia, followed by Quebec City in 1608. The French colonists divided into two main groups, namely the Canadians in the area of the Saint Lawrence River valley around Quebec and Montreal, and the Acadians who settled around Port Royal on today’s Maritime Provinces New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. From 1610 on England established fishing outposts on Newfoundland and colonised the Thirteen Colonies to the South (which became the founding United States of America in 1783). In 1663 Louis XIV of France made Nouvelle France (or New France) which had been under control of the private company Compagnie de la France Nouvelle until then, a royal colony under his direct control. Seven years later, in 1670, the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company “marked the beginning of a 150-year rivalry between the St Lawrence and the Hudson Bay approaches to the fur country” (Williams 2009). This rivalry led to tensions between France and Great Britain which were intensified by the conflicts in Europe between these two nations. These tensions and conflicts resulted in four Intercolonial Wars between 1689 and 1763. With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 France agreed to cede all claims to Newfoundland and to Acadia except New Brunswick[3]. After the decisive battle in the Plains of Abraham in 1759 Quebec was conquered by the British. The 1763 Treaty of Paris, ending the Seven Years War, ceded New France, Canada and Newfoundland to Britain.

2.2.2 British rule

The Treaty of Paris made Great Britain the leading colonial power in the world by receiving various overseas colonies including Canada and all French North American claims east of the Mississippi River. By the Royal Proclamation of 1763 the province of Quebec was created out of the inhabited portion of New France. This led to language and religious rights restrictions of French Canadians living in Quebec. At that time roughly 70,000 Frenchmen lived in Quebec, most of them in Quebec City and Montreal (cf. Lenz 2001, 98). By carving Quebec out of the Indian Reserve territory it was the British government’s goal “to restrict the westward expansion of American colonists, thereby encouraging Euro-American settlement in Quebec and ultimately increasing the English-speaking population there” (Patrick 2003, 34). This indirect goal of the British Crown – to increase the English-speaking population of Quebec – which was not formulated in the Royal Proclamation could not be achieved due to the fact that British settlers did not arrive in the numbers expected by the British government. This meant that “the assimilation of French speakers to an English-speaking milieu could not proceed as planned” (ibid.). Because of growing unrest in the Thirteen Colonies to the South the British were worried that the French population of Quebec might support this unrest as they felt discriminated by the language and religious rights restrictions. Thus the British enacted the 1774 Quebec Act which “offered to protect the religion and language of the Catholic French-speaking population of Quebec in exchange for their promise of loyalty to Canada rather than to their American allies” (ibid.). Furthermore the Quebec Act restored the use of French civil law for private matters while English common law was used for public administration including criminal prosecution. An unforeseen side effect of the Quebec Act, which was enacted to appease the French population of Quebec, was to anger large parts of the population of the Thirteen Colonies which ultimately led to the American Revolution and the recognition of the American independence in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

After the American independence about 50,000 United Empire Loyalists left the United States for Canada which was still under British rule. Many of them settled in Quebec (whose borders had been extended by the 1774 Quebec Act) so that the French dominated area experienced an Anglicization. The huge amount of Loyalists necessitated a restructuring of the British North American colonies, e.g. New Brunswick was split from Nova Scotia in 1784. In 1791 the British parliament trying to react to constitutional complaints of Loyalists in Quebec passed the Constitutional Act which divided the province of Quebec into English-speaking Upper Canada, the predecessor of modern Ontario, and French-speaking Lower Canada, the southern portion of present-day Quebec. The Constitutional Act, also called the Canada Act, was not only a result of the Loyalists’ claims to a legislative assembly though. It also expressed a newly arising anti-French conservatism endorsing a general ethnic division between Upper Canada, based on British common law, and Lower Canada which adopted the regulations of the 1774 Quebec Act to the discontent of resident English-speaking mercantilists (cf. Koestler 1995, 75).


[1] Until 2007 the Canadian prime minister had the unrestricted right to request a dissolution of parliament which is a sign of exposed position of the prime minister within the Canadian political system. An amendment to the Canada Elections Act passed in 2007 – called Bill C-16 – has brought about legal changes that are designed to constrain when the Prime Minister can request dissolution of parliament by setting fixed election dates (cf. Parliament of Canada, Bill C-16).

[2] The Canadian and United Kingdom’s government’s official position is that Cabot landed on Newfoundland, but in fact it is unclear if he landed on Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia or on Cape Breton Island.

[3] France could keep New Brunswick “because of differences of interpretation in the size of the territory” (Sutherland 2009) which in fact reduced the loss of Acadia to Nova Scotia.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


The language situation in Canada with special regard to Quebec
RWTH Aachen University  (Anglistik)
Variety in English
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
513 KB
30 Quellenangaben
Bilingualism, Canada, Quebec, Charlottetown Accord, Ethnicism, Dualism, Political System
Quote paper
Jochen Kosel (Author), 2009, The language situation in Canada with special regard to Quebec, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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