French Canadians

Alternative names: “Quebecois” (in Quebec), Arcadians (in eastern states)
Location: 80% in Quebec, remainder throughout Canada
Population: 6–6.5 million
% of population: 25%; 80% of Quebec population
Religion: Catholic
Language: French-Canadian

The French Canadians are the descendants of the French settlers who came to settle along the St Lawrence River and eastern seaboard from the early seventeenth century. They formed, and continue as, a distinctive linguistic and cultural group within Canada which has resisted assimilation into the Anglo-Protestant Canadian mainstream (although this itself is today far more diffuse after large-scale Eastern European and non-European migration) and seeks greater communal autonomy and linguistic protection. French-Canadians form about one quarter of the Canadian population and 80% live in the province of Quebec with smaller communities elsewhere.

The colonial period

French settlers came to Canada from 1608 in the wake of French trading companies. They settled on

1 French Canadian as distinguished from standard French.

the banks of the St Lawrence River, founding small rural parishes, where the Catholic Church played a dominant role in cultural and social life. The settlers were of homogenous social origins and formed a strongly integrated society on the basis of common values, institutions, values and religion. By the time of the British conquest in 1760 the French settlements were already different in many ways from their origins in France, more conservative, more religious and with influences from the Indian peoples that surrounded them.

The British conquest removed French administrative structures and made the French Canadians a minority group. In 1763 the British attempted to enforce an assimilationist policy whereby the Catholic religion was not recognized, French Canadians were excluded from the administration and were made to swear allegiance to the British crown. However in 1774 this policy was reversed as the British needed French Canadian support against the American Revolution. The Quebec Act of 1774 restored the power of the Catholic Church and allowed the use of civil French laws which have continued in Quebec to this date. However the loss of the American colonies meant that loyalists settled in Canada, which both disrupted the cultural homogeneity of the French settlements and brought liberal ideas. The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided the colony into Upper and Lower Canada, where English and French Canadians respectively predominated, the first increasingly commercial and trade oriented, the second overwhelmingly rural.

Difficult economic conditions and political discontent produced the French Canadian rebellion of 1837-38. The rebellion was put down after two brief military campaigns but an enquiry for the British government by Lord Durham found “two nations at war within one state”. He recommended the political union of the two provinces in order to assimilate the French (whom he considered to be inferior). The Union Act of 1840 gave equal representation to both Lower and Upper Canada, although the French were at this stage the majority of the population, and did not recognize the use of the French language in the Assembly. British immigration was encouraged and only a decade later the French were the minority population. The French response to these developments took two complementary forms. Politically they endeavoured to gain some rights within the system and eventually obtained recognition of the French language, participation in the system of political patronage and some compensation for losses suffered during the rebellion. Socially they became more conservative and inward looking, upholding the Catholic faith, the French language and a number of traditions and customs.


The need for economic unity brought further constitutional change in the British North American Act of 1867 which united four provinces (Ontario — formerly Upper Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec — formerly Lower Canada) into a federation. While the federal government controlled economic and foreign affairs, the provinces were given socio-cultural areas, education, cultural and civil rights. The new constitution guaranteed certain language rights to the francophone minority such as the right to use French in Parliament and the federal courts, as well as in courts in Quebec. Within Quebec itself civil French law was recognized and upheld and the French language had equal status to English in official matters. There was no mention of the linguistic rights of Francophone minorities residing outside Quebec. Certain rights based on religion (e.g. Catholic and Protestant schools) were recognized but this did not stop the passing of legislation unfavourable to French speakers outside Quebec as happened in Ontario and Manitoba.

French Canadians found themselves increasingly disadvantaged. Preference in immigration to immigrants from the British Isles and northern Europe and the addition of new western provinces to the federation meant that the proportion of French Canadians in the population dropped, despite their high birthrates. Political decisions in foreign affairs which supported Britain alienated French Canadians and provoked serious political crises within Canada. The most radical changes came from within Quebec as the rural-based society began to change into an urban and industrial one. In 1900 Quebecois society was 60% rural but by 1931 it had become 63% urban, most notably in Montreal and Quebec City. The church lost some of its influence and a new class of nationalist and radical intellectuals and trade unionists emerged. There was growing resentment not just at English-speaking Canadians but at economic domination by Canadian and US firms.

The “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s

In the early 1960s a new group of intellectuals who rejected the traditional French Canadian culture and isolation took power in Quebec. They rejected the idea of conserving a rural society but instead wished to build an industrial, pluralist and French society. They looked to neighbouring Ontario and the USA as economic models and of a Quebecois society for Quebecois rather than a separate French Canadian society. One of the first sectors to be affected was education, where the state took over from the church and made the system more democratic and accessible. Similar reforms took place with regard to health and welfare. The state, which had previously been non-interventionist, began to intervene in the economy creating state companies and greatly increasing the numbers working in the civil service. Instead of leaving the federal government to establish modernization programmes the state government took this responsibility onto itself and withdrew from some federal programmes. It built up direct contacts with France and Francophone countries and attempted to build up an international profile for itself, brought to world attention in President de Gaulle’s visit of 1968 when he proclaimed “Long live a Free Quebec”. From the middle of the 1960s the movement for a “Quiet Revolution” began to lose momentum as economic difficulties and labour unrest increased, and the anglophone upper and middle classes resented the changes that were being made to increase the power of both the state and the French speakers. The “quiet revolution” ushered in an era of artistic and literary flowering in French-speaking Canada.

In October 1970 a political crisis developed as the result of the abduction of the British Consul and the violent murder of the Labour Minister of Quebec, by Quebec separatists from the Front de Libération de Québec (FLQ). The kidnappers demanded a ransom, safe passage and the publication of an FLQ manifesto. Following unsuccessful negotiations, the Canadian government invoked at the request of the Quebec government the 1914 War Measures Act providing for emergency powers and several hundred political suspects were arrested, although most were soon released. Despite the fact that most Quebecois did not support the methods of the FLQ, there was some sympathy for their aims of independence. This was reflected in the surprise victory of the Parti Québécois (PQ), under the leadership of René Levesque, in Quebec in 1976. The PQ did not support complete separation as such but had as its aim to achieve political sovereignty in economic association with Canada.

The language question

The 1960s and 1970s saw profound social changes in Quebec. The birthrate, once among the highest in the world, dropped to become the lowest in Canada. With a high birthrate French Canadians were able to maintain their share of the Quebecois population even though there were extensive immigration both from English speakers and non-English speaking immigrants. This would not have mattered greatly if there had been significant recruitment of French speakers from other sectors of the population. But few English speakers wished to learn French and most immigrants preferred to have their children educated in English which they saw as more advantageous for employment. The more immigrants tended to become anglophones the more isolated and hostile French Canadians became. Some of this feeling resulted in provincial legislation to protect the French language. This process had actually begun in 1963 with the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism established by the federal government. One of its main recommendations was the establishment of bilingual districts in places where the minority language is spoken by at least 10% of the local population, and the use of both official languages in government services, schools and courts. The studies of the Royal Commission showed disparities in income, education and employment between French and English speakers in Quebec with the French speakers greatly disadvantaged.

In 1968 the provincial government established a commission into the French language and the means of promoting it in Quebec. At the end of 1972 the Commission produced its report in which it confirmed the observations made by the Royal Commission. It recommended that French be made the official language of Quebec and that measures be taken to increase the use of French in the workplace and in education. However it supported the use of persuasion rather than constraint in the use of French. In 1974 the provincial government adopted a new and controversial language law which made French the official language and restricted for the first time the right of parents to choose the language in which children could be educated. Further measures were implemented by the PQ government which in 1977 adopted a “Charter of the French language” which made French the official language of Quebec, to be used in government administration, in government contracts and collective bargaining agreements, and in nursery, primary and secondary schools. This new language policy created great antagonism among those who were opposed to it, most notably Anglophones and immigrants. However it did appear to create conditions favourable to French speakers and the 1981 census showed that the numbers of Quebec residents whose first language was English dropped in five years from 800,000 to 706,000 — about 11% of the population.

2 The present Quebec government has attempted to overcome this by paying families larger amounts for third or subsequent children and recruiting French-speaking immigrants from France, Lebanon and Haiti. Haitians now comprise the largest numbers of French-speaking immigrants; they are reported to have faced racial discrimination from some French Canadians.

Political status

Two political and constitutional developments at the beginning of the 1980s have laid the basis for present developments in Quebec. One was the referendum defeat of a proposal for Quebec sovereignty in May 1980 and the other the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982. The referendum, sponsored by the PQ, asked voters to choose between the present status and a form of “sovereignty-association” which was widely seen as a step towards separation and Quebec independence. Sixty per cent voted against the option, including 52% of the French-speaking population and 95% of non-French speakers. The result was a blow for PQ, which however accepted the result and which, despite divisions and the formation of a pro-independence group within the PQ, voted in January 1985, to drop its long-term goal of independence. The PQ lost office in the Quebec elections of 1985 winning only 23 of the 122 seats to the Liberal Party’s (LP) 99. In September 1988 under a new leader it again adopted a pro-independence policy. By this time it had lost much of its former support and trailed well behind the ruling LP in the opinion polls.

The 1982 repatriation of the British North America Act of 1867 and the adoption of a new Canadian Constitution also produced conflicts between Quebec and the federal government. Quebec was concerned that the powers given to the central government would override specific laws concerning language protection and promote greater centralization. Therefore, alone of the 10 Canadian provinces, Quebec refused to accede to the Constitution and agreement to do so only came well after the LP victory of 1985 when the federal government, in an agreement known as the Meech Lake accord, recognized Quebec’s distinctive identity and culture and its powers to protect the French language. To date however Quebec has not yet signed the Constitution.

A further crisis over language policy developed in late 1988, when the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that part of the 1977 French Language Charter, which dealt with provisions for French language only on commercial and public signs, was invalid as it ignored the fundamental rights of non-French speakers. The Quebec government announced that it would compromise on some aspects but would not abandon its French language policy. The issue provoked divisions in both the province and the government with three English-speaking cabinet ministers resigning. Mass rallies were held and there were threats of violence from both French - and English-speaking extremists.

French speakers outside Quebec

There are about one million French-Canadians in provinces other than Quebec. None of these groups comprise a majority, most are relatively small and probably declining in numbers, as urbanization increases and isolated French-speaking communities become rarer.

The eastern state of New Brunswick has the highest proportion outside Quebec. One third of its population of 700,000 are French speaking, mainly concentrated in the north and north-east. French speakers here are known as “Arcadians” as are communities in the other maritime states. New Brunswick has special legislation to protect the French language and it is given official status as a language of education. Arcadians have formed an Arcadian political party which urges that a separate Arcadian province be created from French-speaking areas in New Brunswick; it won 10% of the vote in the 1979 provincial elections. Arcadians are concentrated in forestry and fishing sectors and are the poorest section of the New Brunswick population.

The largest non-Quebecois French minority is found in Ontario where there may be half-a-million people of French origin. But not all speak French fluently and the numbers appear to be dropping. There are no official guarantees for the protection of French speakers and although French is recognized as a language of education it is not given as an automatic right. In Manitoba French Canadians once formed a majority of the population; today they are about 6% of the population and only two-thirds of these speak fluent French. In 1980 a Supreme Court ruling overturned the previous English-language-only policy of the Manitoba government; further favourable rulings followed. However most of the population of Manitoba appears to be against recognition of French as an official language and in 1984 an attempt to make both English and French official languages failed.

(See also Mexican Americans)

3 The Arcadians refused to swear allegiance to the British crown in 1755. The British authorities rounded them up, destroyed their farms and deported them to American colonies. Many later returned to Canada while others became the “Cajuns” — French speakers in Louisiana.