New data released by Statistics Canada shows that for the first time, more than half of Quebec residents can conduct a conversation in English.

This is one of the findings of a series on ethnicity, language and immigration published by Statistics Canada on Tuesday, entitled 'Key facts on the English language in Quebec in 2021.'

With language being one of the hottest-button topics in the province, the figures will likely be studied by all stakeholders to see if they add to the discussion around minority community rights and language policy.

The President of the Association for Canadian Studies, Jack Jedwab, provided an analysis of some of the census results that he finds pertinent in the current conversation about language in Quebec.

The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Q - What did you make of those increases and figures, first of all, English speaking increasing in the workplace?

A - I wasn't surprised by it. It's presented in real numbers, so it lacks that sort of context that enables us to understand in the sort of bigger scheme of things what an increase in actual numbers means.

Over that period you will certainly observe that the population has grown, and hence, it's not surprising to see overall growth. You'll see similar rates, if not increased rates of growth for the French language in the workplace as well if we're looking at it in real terms, as opposed to better understanding the context of it.

(Jedwab points out that from 2016 to 2021, many changes are the result of the modification of a census question)

You've got to ask yourself two things. Number one, how accurate is any comparison between 2016 and 2021? Based on that census question modification on the one hand, and, to what extent we are diminishing the degree to which there is bilingualism operating in that workplace to the extent it was reflected in the previous census in 2016.

My sense is that what a lot of this all reflects is increasing bilingualism in the workplace, and I'm not astonished by that. It's a reflection of what's happening in Montreal. Montreal is a very bilingual city, increasingly, whether governments choose to acknowledge that or not. That's just the reality on the ground.

You know, we can say that Montreal is a French city, French-only city, it's a common language of Montreal, and the more English there is, the less French there is, which, again, all these observations that are rooted in political discourse in Quebec don't necessarily connect with what's happening on the ground, which is increasing interaction and mixing between English and French speakers resulting in more bilingualism, both individually and institutionally.

Ability to conduct a conversation in English

Q - There is often a debate about the size of the English-speaking community in Quebec. Do you think these new numbers will pave the way for more friction?

A - It's going to depend on whether the elected officials think there are opportunities here, or thought leaders or influencers, given whatever their objective might be in these language debates, if they think there are opportunities here to use these figures in particular ways that fuel tension. One hopes that that's not the way they'll be used, but that's not been our experience in terms of the politics of Quebec, where the tendency is for influencers to see language as a sort of a wedge issue where there are opportunities for political games depending on how things are presented.

For the Anglophone community, on the other hand, I think, the continued case for declines in the use of English or declines in the English-speaking population isn't one that can be made successfully and has not been something you could make successfully in the past 10 years. There's been a clear change in the way things have evolved. The English population is experiencing real growth. And there is greater bilingualism which I think, you know, from the standpoint of the English-speaking community is a positive thing.

Francophones, I think individually also, based on the very numbers you're seeing in this particular release showing that more Francophones are able to speak English, increasingly so in percentage terms and in real terms, will be seen as a positive development in that, yes, we want to preserve the French language, we want to protect the French language, but we're in the North American context, and English is vital.

That's why in this very same release that Stats Can has issued, you're seeing growing bilingualism amongst immigrants. It's a very key issue that certainly will be an increasingly controversial question in Quebec where, immigration seems to be viewed in surveys that my organization has done, as a key factor in the future of the French language. It will be interesting to see how the government continues to address those issues given that the government selection process, whether it acknowledges or not, is contributing to growing bilingualism in Montreal and across Quebec, as evidenced by this release on the part of Stats Can demonstrating that a big percentage of migrants coming here speak English. But they also speak French to an equal and I would certainly suggest, as would Quebec government figures, to a greater extent.

So you're seeing migrants contribute to that increased degree of bilingualism. Why not? They see that the Francophone population is also increasing its own acquisition of English so it makes perfect sense. We can't have these sorts of double standards where it's okay for Francophones to learn English. But we don't want those immigrants to be able to acquire English. That is just contradictory. It makes no sense to those newcomers that are arriving here.

And, surely the government understands that success in the Montreal economy is connected to a significant degree in many occupations to one's ability to operate in both French and English. So, we're going to attract immigrants here that are able to speak both, ideally. Ideally, we want immigrants coming here to be able to speak French obviously, since one of the objectives of our government, and I think an objective that's widely shared, is that we want to support the French language in this province. And that's what makes this province quite unique from the rest of North America.