Quebec HistoryMarianopolis College
 HomeAbout this siteSite SearchMarianopolis College Library

Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Anglophone is a term used in Quebec, and the rest of Canada, to describe English speaking individuals. However simple this definition may seem to be, a determination of the number of English speakers in Quebec, now or throughout its history, is not easy to make for two reasons: because of problems of accuracy of data in the past, or because of the evolution, over time, in the manner of determining who is an English speaker.

Problems of accuracy in data collection:

Although Quebec has some of the best historical demographic data, surpassing nearly everybody else in the world in scope and accuracy, and explaining why Quebec has been heavily studied by demographers, the data for the pre Confederation period was neither collected at regular intervals, nor was it completely accurate. The irregularity of the data makes it difficult to follow trends. Demographers are hard at work to reconstitute, with great accuracy, the population of Quebec, eventually to the end of the XIXth century. By using a variety of civil and/or religious documents [baptism or birth certificates, marriage contracts before notaries, marriage records before the Church, wills, inventories after death, burial records], they are now in the position to draw a more accurate picture of the situation. Presently, research is completed for the period up to 1730. In the meantime, we must continue to rely on data that, for the period of 1730 to 1851, is known to have problems. In part, this data comes from the religious authorities and mostly focuses on Roman Catholics. To the extent that many anglophones were not Roman Catholics, and that non Catholic denominations were not as careful in keeping records, in duplicate, as the Catholic Church was, we are likely to be misestimating the anglophone population of Quebec, especially because it was a far more mobile population in Quebec than the francophone population. As well, most of the censuses were carried out by the British governors who apparently were not averse to falsifying records to advance their views. Thus, we have data, although of questionable accuracy about the anglophone population.

Who is English speaker?

In fact, the problem of the accuracy of the data is less serious than the one of reconciling the different means used since 1766 to determine who is an English speaker. From 1766 to 1931, the only means used to measure who is an English speaker was deduced from the question on ethnic origin. Ethnic origin was determined according to the answer provided in the census on the question of the origin of the first male ancestor of the respondent that arrived in Canada; there was the further complication of not being allowed to answer that the USA was the country of origin. If you were from the USA, you had to give the ethnic origin of your first male ancestor that arrived in America. Aside from that, racial or religious categories were created: for example, Negro, Chinese, and Jews were separate categories, and these categories defined your ethnic origin superseding all other possible categorisations. Also, multiple origins were not allowed. From 1766 to 1844, the data collected on ethnic origin was apparently inconsistent. The data became more standardised between 1851 and 1931, with the exception of 1891 when the question was not even asked! In any case, those who responded that they were of “British” origin [English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh] are deemed to have been English speakers. This view is likely largely correct although a margin of error would exist, as some would have been Gaelic speakers, others might have assimilated to the francophone group while many of other ethnic origins might have become English speaking. Thus, the tool of measurement in this period was imperfect, and one that was possibly increasingly incorrect as time passed.

From 1931, the Canadian census asked not only about ethnic origins but, as well, about mother tongue. Mother tongue is defined as the first language learned as a child and still understood. Since it directly addressed language mastery, it evidently became a better measurement of the linguistic situation than ethnic origin. The two questions permitted an evaluation of assimilation, as people of British origin who listed a mother tongue other than English had evidently been assimilated to another group. They especially enabled the measurement of the great attractiveness of the English language to the people of non British origins. However, again the census only allowed one mother tongue to be listed when, frequently, because of the increasing incidence of cross-cultural marriages, more than one language was learned simultaneously. It also did not take into consideration that, while a language may still be understood, it might rarely, if ever, be used, or that one might identify with another linguistic group despite one’s mother tongue.

Because of the inadequacies of the two measurements of the linguistic situation, a new question was added in 1971: the language most frequently used at home. This question, along with the later decisions to allow answers of multiple origins and mother tongues, permitted demographers to measure more fully, and accurately, the number of English or French speakers. Home use of a language is a true test of linguistic knowledge and identification. It permitted the census takers to measure to what extent people of origin or mother tongue other than English or French, an increasing group in Quebec and in Canada, were assimilated to one or the other of these groups.

So, how many anglophones are there presently in Quebec? The answer depends on the criterion used to answer the question, as each criterion will yield a different statistic. This issue, as many others do, has become highly politicised, and is emotionally charged! The tendency is to select the criterion that most favours the views of whoever is answering the question. The best, and most objective answer, is to use all three criteria. Presently, on the basis of ethnic origins, the British are between 2.6 to 4.5% of the population of Quebec [the data is most fluctuating here because of the frequency of multiple answers]; by using mother tongue, the proportion rises to 8.8%. By selecting the criterion of home use, the anglophone population of Quebec would be 11% of the population of the province. When looking at these figures, and at the graph linked to this text, two findings come out clearly: English is still an assimilating language, a sure sign that it continues to show strength in Quebec, but also that its presence in the province has been steadily declining, no matter which criteria are used as measurement. This relative decline dates back to 1851 when the anglophone share of the population of Quebec stood at 25% of the population of the province. Since 1971, the anglophone population of Quebec has declined not only in relative terms but in absolute ones as well. The reasons for this decline are analysed elsewhere at the site.

The geographical location of the anglophone population of Quebec is also of interest. In theory, anglophones have been, and may still be found, in all regions of Quebec. However, there have only ever been sizeable concentrations of anglophones in five regions of Quebec. These are the Gaspé region, the Eastern Townships [‘the bastion’ of English Quebec in the XIXth century], the Ottawa Valley, Quebec City and Montreal [see the regional distribution of the anglophone population of Quebec]. Indeed, it should be noted that, until the Second World War, the rate of urbanisation of the anglophone community of Quebec was such [anglophone rate of urbanisation was 35% in 1825 when that of francophones was merely 5%] that Montreal was 61% English in 1842 and that Quebec City was English in the proportion of 40% at the same time. Quebec City is seen today as the typically “French” city in Quebec! So the anglophone population of Quebec is highly concentrated, today more than 80% in the Montreal area. This concentration, along with a long tradition of community involvement and philanthropy in the anglophone community, as well as the benevolent approach by the majority of francophones, has permitted anglophones to maintain social and educational services beyond what one might expect from a community accounting for only 8.8%-11% of the population of the province. In the rest of Canada, despite noticeable improvements in the recent past, there does not exist the wealth of social and educational services that the anglophone population of Quebec enjoys. However, the current perspective of the anglophone community is to see its numbers declining, and social services diminishing, even to see itself as a besieged minority.

Note on sources: there exists an increasingly large body of literature devoted to anglophones in Quebec. The following will introduce the reader to the subject: Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos and Dominique Clift, The English Fact in Quebec, McGill-Queen’s, 1980, 239p. is a perceptive examination of the recent past. Gary Caldwell and Eric Waddell, eds., The English of Quebec: from Majority to Minority Status, Quebec, Institut Québécois de la culture, 1981 presents a broad spectrum of authors and views on a variety of subjects of importance to the anglophone community of Quebec. Ronald Rudin, The Forgotten Quebecers: A History of English Speaking Quebec, 1759-1980, Institut Québécois de recherche sur la culture, 1985 is a pioneer work of great value. The author explores not only the history of the anglophone community of Quebec in a strict chronological framework but also by themes [politics, economy, and education]. On a subject where emotions flare up easily, he remains objective in the best of historical traditions, although rarely critical of the community that he studies. By contrast, Les anglophones du Quebec à l’heure du plan B, in the Bulletin d’histoire politique, [winter 1997, vol. 5, No 2] contains several incisive and critical essays discussing the anglophone community, but sometimes lacking in empathy and using an aggressive tone.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College