University of Ottawa statistician Charles Castonguay has made a career out of making alarmist predictions about the future of French outside Quebec. Last week, Castonguay went beyond alarmist and threw in the towel altogether, saying it was time the federal government cut off funding to francophone communities in other provinces.
"I think it's money down the drain," Castonguay said. "Not in Ottawa, not in (Eastern) Ontario or New Brunswick, but outside of those areas, the strength of English is just overwhelming."
On the face of it, Castonguay appears to have a point. In most provinces that have an English-speaking majority, the number of people who speak French at home dropped. In Newfoundland, the number of French speakers dropped by 27 per cent, and in Saskatchewan, the drop was 12 per cent.
These declines are, as well, part of a long-term trend. In Castonguay's view, a renewed commitment to official-language support in the form of the $750-million, five-year 2003 federal Action Plan for Official Languages, will do nothing to reverse the trend toward less French outside Quebec.
The problem with Castonguay's predictions is that they assume a static reality, when the reality of language use in Canada is anything but fixed. Lise Routhier-Boudreau, president of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadiennes du Canada, is right to challenge Castonguay.
Francophone school boards outside of Quebec were established only 15 years ago. Today, she said, they are beginning to show results. Among young children, under age 5, more parents are registering their children's maternal language as French.
The decrease in the number of French-speakers outside Quebec looks spectacular, dropping from 7.3 per cent of the population in 1951 to 4.1 per cent in 2006. But for many years, little to no effort was made to provide French-speaking communities with the infrastructure they needed to survive as a linguistic group.
'There were, as Routhier-Boudreau rightly says, no French-language school boards until the early 1990s. It was difficult even then to attract French-speaking teachers. Teachers came mainly from Quebec and were often too lonely to stay for any length of time.
Reversing a trend such as language use cannot be done in five-year segments, perfectly timed for census results. Canada must accept that maintaining French outside Quebec - and English inside Quebec - is a nation-building exercise. It will take time, money and a long-term commitment.
If the country's aboriginal communities can save languages on the verge of extinction with the help of educational and community infrastructure, so can French-speaking communities outside Quebec. English-speakers inside Quebec might appear to need no help surviving, but they, too, need schools, hospitals, community centres, the lifeblood of a vibrant community.
Yet, successive Quebec governments continue to strangle the schools, cutting off the supply of English-speaking students from abroad, and now, chipping away at the viability of the Montreal Children's Hospital.
The French-speaking community outside Quebec and the English-speaking community inside should both be nurtured like the national resources that they are.