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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Allophone is a term used in Quebec, and in the rest of Canada, to describe people whose language is neither English nor French; the term is derived from Greek and simply means ‘other languages’. A discussion of the accuracy of the language data, of the means to measure language use since 1766, and of the general methodological difficulties involved in assessing the number of allophones in Quebec will be found under the heading of anglophone at the site; reference should be made to it in evaluating the data presented here. Further to the general methodological problems outlined already, the measurement of the importance of the allophone group is rendered more difficult by the great diversity of groups, and thus of potential diverse identification and behaviour, within that category; by resistance, for a variety of reasons, to be associated with one of the other, or any, of the allophone groups [for example: the Dutch group increased significantly in Canada between 1911-1921, at the time of the First World War, while the group of German origin diminished by approximately the same margin; it is probable that many Germans are answering the census question on ethnic origin by hiding their true origin, so as to not face embarrassing situations. Another example may be found in Quebec in the 1970’s when language legislation restricted increasingly access to English schools to anglophones in Quebec. Some allophones might have answered the census questions in such a way as to enhance their chances of placing their children in English schools] or by simple misunderstanding of the process either because of fear of government or lack of knowledge of English or French, the two languages in which the censuses have been done in Canada.

In general, the individuals who fall into the allophone category have various origins and mother tongues, and frequently more than one at the same time. This creates a further problem in categorising them. While they are lumped together, they do not constitute a group with a single identity, although they may sometimes have interests in common. In the last referendum of 1995, the Jewish, Greek and Italian community spokesmen worked together to be heard more fully and to impact on the debate. As well, a Council of ethnic minorities has been formed in Quebec. Yet, there is no doubt that the diversity of this group makes co-operation among them difficult to achieve.

Aside from natives, who continue to speak in majority their ancestral languages in Quebec, and who constitute a separate category, what allophones have in common is their fairly recent immigration to Quebec. Essentially, Quebec was made up of French, English and Natives at the time of Confederation. But starting from around 1896, immigration of allophones was to become important in Quebec, as it did in the rest of Canada. The first groups to have arrived in significant numbers in Quebec were the Germans and Jews who came in late XIXth and early XXth centuries. Jews were in majority Yiddish speakers and established themselves in large numbers in Montreal. They were followed by large contingents of Italians, from the early XXth century, and especially in the post Second World War, then by Greeks, Portuguese and East Europeans, especially Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians. Since the 1960’s, the main arrivals have been the Chinese, the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Haitians [speaking Creole; many give French as their mother tongue], various South Americans, especially Chileans, and lately, the fastest growing group in Quebec, Arab speakers, for whom French is often a second language.

In consequence of the increasingly liberal and humanitarian immigration policy of the Canadian government, and of the determined efforts of the Government of Quebec to attract immigrants to the province [the province was the first to create a Department of Immigration in Canada and remains the most active province in the field of immigration], allophones have risen sharply in number and proportion in the province since the beginning of the XXth century. In the process, the province, especially the Montreal area, has become very cosmopolitan. However, the group of allophones has been the target of much focus in the language debate [to which schools, English or French ones, will they go?]. Bill 101 requires that the children of allophones be sent to French schools. While there was resistance to this requirement at the outset, the evidence indicates that allophones show a genuine desire to integrate well to Quebec and to learn French. In consequence, it is from this group that assimilation has taken it heaviest toll.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College