Why Is French Spoken in Canada?

Quebec Flag
Quebec Flag | © michael_swan/ Flickr | © michael_swan / Flickr

Although Canada is a predominantly English-speaking country, there are francophone communities throughout its provinces. In fact, according to the 2016 census, French is the native language of around 7.2 million Canadians—or about 20 percent of the total population. Most native French-speakers live in Quebec, where it is the majority official language. Here is an overview of the French language in Canada.

Historical roots

In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier ventured across the Atlantic in search of a more direct route to Asia. He reached the shores of Newfoundland and what are now Canada’s Maritime Provinces, and mapped the area of Gulf of Saint Lawrence. During this time, he attempted to claim the region for France, erecting a 10-metre cross with the words Long Live the King of France, which caused conflict among the area’s Aboriginal inhabitants.

Jacques Cartier in Hochelaga. Cartier was the first European to arrive in the area, in 1535. Depicted by Lawrence R. Batchelor, 1887-1961

Cartier returned for two subsequent voyages, and although he did not quite succeed in establishing a permanent settlement, Canada’s French roots were laid by the time of his death in 1557.

Importantly, Cartier was the first to use the name “Canada” to refer to the lands that he had explored along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. The name is a misinterpretation of the local indigenous word “kanata,” or “village,” which he thought designated the surrounding land and river. He used the term “Canadiens” to refer to the Iroquoians he had met there, and the name Canada was used to refer to the small French colony that developed in the region, and the French colonists were called Canadiens.

French settlement through the 17th century

French settlement was established in eastern Canada by the early 17th century, with Samuel de Champlain founding Port Royal in Acadia in 1605 and Quebec City in 1608. By 1634 there were around 200 settlers living in Quebec, mainly working in the increasingly profitable fur trade. In 1642 Ville Marie was founded as the settlement that would eventually become Montreal. Further political and economic consolidation of the French colony continued through the century.

A dramatization of the arrival of Samuel de Champlain at the site of Quebec City, by George Agnew Reid, 1908

18th century strife

The 18th century experienced a series of wars and treaties that saw French Canada fall to British Rule, piece by piece from the Atlantic territories into Quebec. During this time, the French language was reduced to a lower rank in terms of trade and political power, though in general the attempted Anglicization of the French-speaking population failed. In order to encourage the coexistence of the two linguistic groups, in 1774, the Quebec Act was passed by the British Parliament, which restored French civil laws.

The Fleur-de-lys, the official flag of Quebec

Consolidating Canada

Canada was emerging as a federal state by the late 18th century, which involved dividing the Canadian colony into two designated provinces: the primarily English-speaking Upper Canada (now Ontario), and the predominantly French-speaking Lower Canada (now Quebec). In 1867, the Dominion of Canada was established with the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. In Quebec, French was established again as the official language. There were also significant French communities in the Maritime Provinces.

Habitants by Cornelius Krieghoff (1852)

Current status and variations of French

Canada established its first Official Languages Act in 1969, which was further refined in 1988 in order to outline the equal status of English and French at the federal level. The two languages have also gradually reached a greater level of equality in most of the provinces, through concentrated French education programs and policies. New Brunswick is the only province in the country to have voluntarily opted to become officially bilingual, although there are pockets of French-speaking communities across every province in Canada.

Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste

These communities have their own accents and dialects of French, combining different elements from other regional languages and “folk dialects” that were spoken in France at the time of colonization. This means that “French Canada” is a label that refers to a unique and multi-textured identity that ranges across the country.

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