For francophones, the 2006 census brought bad news and good news.
The bad news is that outside Quebec, the influence of French Canadians has diminished. Half of those who say their native language is French speak English at home. Only in Ontario and New Brunswick - where there are significant concentrations - can they expect long-term survival.
There's a limit to what laws and governments can do for minorities without the numbers or economic drive to survive as a distinct group. (Even the Chinese, an exceptionally industrious and close-knit community with a 4,000-year old culture, become more or less assimilated into the English-Canadian mainstream in fewer than three generations. Why would small, scattered French-Canadian minorities evolve differently?) Of course, nothing is predetermined - unexpected happenings might one day push a large number of enterprising Quebeckers to, say, Alberta, transforming its cultural makeup. Events might bring an influx of African, Israeli or Lebanese French-speakers to Toronto, changing the face of Canada's economic metropolis. But counting on it is daydreaming.
The good news is that the French language is alive and well in Quebec, which is actually the only society in North America that can be described as thoroughly French. In Quebec, we have the numbers, we have the economic clout and we have the political power. And even though the census shows the proportion of Quebeckers whose native language is French has (very slightly) diminished since 2001, the French language is progressing in the province thanks to the fact more and more immigrants are adopting it as their daily language. This kind of linguistic integration is taken for granted in the rest of Canada, where English is the common language - and the international language to boot. In Quebec, though, the "francisation" of immigrants requires extra effort because French is a minority language in North America.
Still, thanks to Bill 101, which requires all immigrants to send their children to French-language schools, the rate of francisation of the immigrant population is remarkably high, with 75 per cent speaking French at home. In the 1960s, 39.2 per cent of newcomers spoke French: This was at a time when all immigrants, except those coming from France or Belgium, would systematically send their children to English-language schools.
Old-stock francophone Quebeckers have a low birth rate and although they still form a huge majority in Quebec, their proportion, for the first time since 1931, has dropped below 80 per cent. Now, we're talking of microscopic figures, since the decline to 79.6 per cent was only 0.4 percentage points. Still, falling below this symbolic figure came as a shock in a province where cultural survival has always been paramount.
More worrying is the fact that in Montreal, the proportion of native French-speakers has fallen to 49.8 per cent, this in part due to an increase in immigration and the stabilization of the anglophone population. In 2001, for the first time in three decades, the English-speaking community grew by 2.7 per cent. This means anglophones have stopped leaving Quebec, and some of those who settled in other provinces have come back.
Still, the main reason for the relative decline of native French-speakers on the island of Montreal is that many of them left for the nearby suburbs, where they form 64.9 per cent of the population. This attraction of old-stock francophones to the 'burbs will have a detrimental effect on the integration of immigrants, who tend to settle in Montreal. They will learn French in school, but they will not be in touch with the culture - they will not be surrounded by francophone neighbours, friends and co-workers. Most will marry inside their own communities.
The danger is that Montreal, the only cosmopolitan city in Quebec, will gradually find itself alienated from the rest of the province.