Francophones may be lying about English abilities on census

OTTAWA – Thousands of francophones across Canada are believed to have lied about their ability to speak English in a seemingly co-ordinated attempt to manipulate the 2006 Census in order to guarantee federal funding of programs for French speakers.

Statistics Canada has taken the unusual step of posting a warning on its website to caution users that the data on bilingualism rates for francophones outside Quebec may not be reliable. The suspected cause is an anonymous French-language e-mail that circulated widely across Canada prior to the census encouraging francophones to say they could not speak English even if they could. The e-mail went on to say that this would ensure that the federal government would not cut services to francophones.

The resulting statistics showed for the first time an inexplicable decrease in the number of francophones outside Quebec who said they could speak English, reversing a long trend of increasing rates of bilingualism for francophones outside Quebec.

The number of bilingual francophones in Ontario, for example, has been on the rise by between one and three per cent in every census since 1991. However, in 2006 the number fell to 88.4 per cent from 89.4 per cent in 2001 – an unexpected drop of one percentage point.

Jean Pierre Corbeil, a chief specialist in the language statistics section, said they have studied the trend reversal and the e-mail appears to be the only factor that may have produced this aberration to the trend.

“How can you explain people living in a minority situation, even in really strong minority situations, that they would become less bilingual? This is almost impossible,” said Corbeil.

Even if the actual number of bilingual francophones had risen by only one per cent, confirming the long-standing trend, the number of Franco-Ontarians who may have lied in the census would be about 10,000.

It wasn’t just Ontario bucking the trend. Fewer francophones said they could speak English in 2006 in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The percentage of francophones outside Quebec who said they could speak English dropped 2.5 percentage points to 83.6 in 2006. The rate of bilingualism for francophones also dropped in Quebec.

The Statistics Act says anyone who lies when participating in a Statistics Canada survey is liable for a $500 fine, but Marc Hamel, manager of the 2011 census, said efforts are never made to track the liars down.

“We rely on Canadians to provide accurate information, but we have no means of verifying,” said Hamel.

Hamel said when his organization heard about the e-mail in 2006, Statistics Canada officials made public statements reminding people to answer the census truthfully. He said the source of the e-mail was never investigated.

Nelson Wiseman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said francophones who may have lied about their English skills in order to protect government funding are misguided.

He said he has studied francophone minorities, particularly in Manitoba, and says government support for francophone culture has not had an appreciable impact on the sustainability of the French language there. He said a language’s survival is mostly affected by changes in society such as intermarriage, urbanization, developments in communications and transportation and the effects of mass media such as television that expose otherwise “insular” francophone communities to other cultures and languages.

This is not the first time a concerted effort has affected official government statistics. For example, in the early 1990s, Corbeil said, a media organization led a campaign to convince Canadians to declare their ethnic origin as Canadian rather than Polish-Canadian or German-Canadian. Corbeil said the campaign was so successful that researchers stopped using data on ethnic origin because it became too unreliable.

The unreliability of data concerning the number of bilingual francophones in Ontario comes on the heels of a controversial decision last year by Ottawa-based provincial politician Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario’s minister responsible for francophone affairs, to change the provincial definition. Previously, a francophone was someone whose mother tongue was French. Now, it can be anyone whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, but who at least understands French. Statistics Canada says this will artificially increase the number of French speakers in the province, likely by about 50,000, and include some people who may not even be able to speak French.

Ontario has the largest population of francophones outside Quebec – 500,000 – but they comprise less than five per cent of all Ontarians and the number has been steadily declining for many years. Just over half of them say French is the language they use at home.

Ottawa Citizen

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