Canada is one of the few countries that measures the three language dimensions recommended by the United Nations (Houle & Cambron-Prémont, 2015: 292).

Introduction to census demolinguistic questions

These dimensions are made concrete in seven language questions from which five variables are derived: (a) Language(s) spoken at home, (b) language(s) used at work, (c) mother tongue, (d) knowledge of language(s), and (e) first official language spoken. The table below summarizes when those were introduced and subsequently used from 1901-2016.

In this section, we briefly sketch the sociopolitical background that led to the introduction of each question as well as the changing versions of each question. This contextualization is necessary because, on the one hand, understanding census data requires a thorough familiarity with census concepts in order to avoid unintended misrepresentation. On the other, to understand why these questions were introduced requires some knowledge of the relevant sociopolitical developments.

Mother tongue

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many countries with diverse populations (e.g. U.S.S.R., U.K., Austro-Hungary, U.S.A., Canada, etc.) were engaged in international discussions on the question of defining and measuring cultural groups within culturally diverse states. Answers to these questions came from two sources.

First, the emerging science of linguistics provided some answers by producing the terms ‘mother tongue’ and ‘native language’. Both of these terms “referred principally to a group of persons that speak the same language (speech community)” (Houle & Cambron-Prémont, 2015: 293).

The second came from a concerted effort from 1853-1876 by statisticians during the course of several conferences in Brussels, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and London to establish an ‘ethnographic statistical database’ and to clarify the appropriate measure of cultural groups (e.g. nationality, ethnicity, language) (Houle & Cambron-Prémont, 2015: 294). The result of this last effort was to establish ‘language’ as a key indicator for cultural groups (Houle & Cambron-Prémont, 2015).

Lastly, the introduction of language questions was also shaped by domestic concerns. Specifically, the statistical authorities of the time envisioned language as a way to assess the ‘absorption’ and ‘unification’ of diverse cultural elements (Houle & Cambron-Prémont, 2015: 295). For the government of the time, this has been interpreted as the assimilation of immigrants into a French-English fabric and the acquisition of English by Francophones (Gaffield, 2000). Indeed, the 1901 printed population report explains: 

In a country peopled with so many foreign elements as Canada, it is desirable to know if they are being absorbed and unified, as may appear by their acquirement of one or other of the official languages. And as English is now in a very large degree the language of commerce throughout the world, it is also desirable to ascertain to what extent citizens of French origin are able to speak it in addition to their own. (Blue,1902: viii)

Overtime, these concerns have evolved into what we now know as immigrant integration and official-language bilingualism.

Consequently, in the wake of these national and international developments, a question on mother tongue was added to the 1901 census and every other since then; with the exception of the 1911 census.

However, the question’s conception and wording has changed over time. For instance, from 1901-1931, individuals were asked for their mother tongue directly but only if still spoken. In 1921 and 1931, the question specifically asked for languages other than English and French. Later, in 1941 a two-condition formula was used to ask about a person’s mother tongue. This two-condition formula defines the mother tongue as the ‘language first learned in childhood that is still understood’. It is not known why the ‘still understood’ condition was added (Lachapelle & Lepage, 2010: 6). Further, for 1951, 1971, and 1976 the variant of ‘first spoken’ is used rather than ‘first learned’.

Nevertheless, what is clear is that the period from 1901-1931 is marked by a productive skill definition of mother tongue where speaking the language was a conceptual requirement. By contrast, from 1941 onwards only a receptive (i.e. comprehension) skill was envisioned. A list of all the mother tongue questions from 1901 to 2016 is provided below for comparison.

Knowledge of official languages

Similarly, questions on knowledge of official languages have appeared in every census since 1901 (except 1911 and 1976). Like the question on mother tongue, the introduction of this question was also ultimately tied to Canada’s dual concern for immigrant integration and official-language bilingualism.

The wording of the question from 1901 to 1941 simply listed two options: '‘Can the person speak English?'’ and ‘'Can the person speak French?’' Later, in 1951 and 1961 the possible options expanded to four: English only, French only, English and French, neither English nor French.

A decade passed and self-enumeration became the new norm in 1971. To effectively conduct the census via this new method, the key measure of the concept was agreed upon and the question became “Can this person speak English or French well enough to hold a conversation?” Since then, the question has remained virtually unchanged always with the same four options available (Lachapelle & Lepage, 2010).

Home language

The question on language spoken at home most often developed from an entirely different socio-political context than that of a person’s mother tongue or knowledge of official languages. This time the catalysts were rooted in the status and characteristics of English and French groups in Canada. We briefly trace the highlights below.

In 1963, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalismwas established under Lester B. Pearson. The Commission was a broad survey of relations between Canada’s Anglophone and Francophone communities. On the basis of census data, it reported large gaps between the two groups in education, labour force status, and other economic activity (Corbeil, 2010: 4). In order to correct the situation, it made several recommendations to the federal government. As it relates to language policy, two important consequences came out of the Commission’s work.

The first was the creation of theOfficial Languages Actand its later adoption by the federal government on July 1969. The act made English and French official languages of Canada, “[with] equity of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and government of Canada” (Sec. 2). These rights were later enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).

The second result was the request for an additional language question in the census. This question would deal directly with the language spoken at home and at work (Corbeil, 2010: 5). In other words, a question not on language knowledge but language use.

In response, the 1971 census introduced the formulation: “What language does this person speak most often at home?” By linking this new question on use with established questions on mother tongue and knowledge of official languages, researchers could now study language trajectories, language transfer, and language shift (Corbeil, 2010: 5).

However, measuring only one language is limiting as it only partially reflects language behaviours at home (Lachappelle & Lepage, 2010: 47). This is particularly true in exogamous relationships where at least two languages may be spoken. Moreover, reporting that a language is not spoken ‘most often’ at home does not necessarily mean that it is not spoken at all. Because of these limitations, a question on other language(s) spoken on a regular basis at home was also added in 2001. The wording of either question has not changed since.

Knowledge of non-official languages

With the passing of the Official Languages Act in 1969 and the entrenchment of Bilingualism in Canadian society, the stage was set for the inclusion of multiple groups in Canada. Two years later, following the recommendations of the Commission, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced multiculturalism as government policy (1971) (Corbeil, 2010: 6).

It would be sometime before an act would be drafted. Nevertheless, in 1982, the concept of multiculturalism was entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Meanwhile, six years later, Canada passed the Multiculturalism Act (1988) and the policy on multiculturalism was made official.

In part because of this new act and in part because of a growing interest in additional information on linguistic diversity, the 1991 Census introduced a question on knowledge of non-official languages. It was formulated as: “What language(s), other than English or French, can this person speak well enough to conduct a conversation?” Unlike mother tongue, this question was aimed not at a person’s childhood language development but rather at a person’s current productive skills. The wording of the question has remained the same ever since.

First official language spoken

At the time of the official multicultural policy of 1971, and all throughout the decade that led to the Multiculturalism Act of 1988 “many government and non-government stakeholders began to wonder about [immigrants’] first official language” (Corbeil, 2010: 6). This interest came largely from the fact that those speaking immigrant languages could not be designated Anglophone or Francophone if the Mother Tongue criterion was used. Yet, there was still a need to know the total number of “those likely to request services in one or the other of the official languages” so as to plan accordingly (Corbeil, 2010: 7). For this reason, at the request of the Treasury Board, in particular, it was necessary to derive the concept of the first official language spoken.

The 1991 Official Language (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations document describes the accepted method for defining the English and French language-minority population. In it, the method described successively considers Knowledge of official languagesmother tongue, and language spoken at the home. Over the last two decades or so, the study of official language minorities has progressively been carried out using this variable in particular.

Language of work

In the Census, there are two language questions related to work. One asks about the language used at work most often, while the other asks for other language(s) regularly used at work. Like the questions mentioned above, the language of work questions have their roots in the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963) which recommended the addition of questions on the language of the workplace. Unlike the Home Language question introduced in 1971, language use at work would have to wait another 30 years until its introduction in the 2001 census. The reasons for its introduction, however, were largely based on developments coming from the province of Québec. Of these, two important developments foregrounded the process.

The first was the creation of a new commission. Shortly after the 1963 Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the provincial government of Québec was forced to act on the language issue under the pressure from the Quiet Revolution (Gémar, 2008). Therefore, under Jean-Jacques Bertrand, a body called the Commission of Inquiry on the Position of the French Language and Linguistic Rights in Québec (1968-1972) was formed. Through this body, studies were conducted on the status of French and Francophones in the province. The mandate was two-fold. First, the Commission was tasked with proposing measures on the linguistic rights of both official language minorities and majorities. Second, it was to propose measures to ensure the diffusion of French in all sectors. The findings of the major studies conducted by the Gendron Commission (as it was known) concluded that French was at best a marginal language particularly in higher levels of most occupations and overall at work (Report 1, 1971: 111).

The second catalyst for the addition of language-of-work questions in the census was the entrenchment of French as the official language in Québec. In light of the poor socioeconomic picture of French being painted by the Gendron commission, the Official Language Act (1974) was passed which made French the official language of Québec. This provision was later expanded in the Charter of the French Language(1977) where the fundamental right of every Quebecer to work in French is enshrined. The Act and Charter also outlined official language policy for the parliament, courts, civil administration, semi-public agencies, labour relations, commerce, business, and language of instruction. Ultimately, these measures were aimed at making French '‘the normal and habitual language of work’' in Québec’s society (Houle, Corbeil, & Charron, 2012:13). Lastly, it should also be noted that part five of the Official Language Act (1988) concerning languages of work also played a role in incentivizing the collection for data on this topic.

In short, many influences bore down on the introduction of a language of work variable in the census. The explicit recommendations of the 1963 Laurendeau-Dunton and 1968 Gendron Commissions, the Canadian Official Languages Act (1988) which recognized French as an official language of the country, the Québec Official Language Act (1974), and the Charter of the French Language (1977) combined with the overall francization of the workplace in Quebec all made it necessary to begin measuring the use of languages in the workplace.

Historical timeline

Related publications

  1. Blue, A. (1902) Report on the Fourth Census of Canada, 1901. Ottawa: The Census Office.
  2. Bouchard, P. (2002) La langue du travail: Une situation qui progresse, mais toujours teintée d’une certain précarité. In Bouchard, P., and Bourhis, R. (Eds.) L’aménagement linguistique au Québec: 25 ans d’application de la Chartre de la langue Francaise. Revue d’aménagement linguistique. Hors serie: 85-103.
  3. Cartier, G. (2008) City of Québec 1608-2008: 400 years of censusesCanadian Social Trends. (Cat.11-008-X)
  4. Chevrier, M. (1997) Laws and language in Québec: The principles and means of Québec's language policy. Ministère des Relations Internationales.  
  5. Corbeil, J.P. (2010) Demolinguistic information and the Canadian census (1969-2009): Reflection of a changing linguistic duality.
  6. Gaffield, C. (2000) Linearity, nonlinearity, and the competing constructions of social hierarchy in early twentieth-century Canada: The question of language in 1901. Historical Methods, 33 (4): 255-260.
  7. Gémar, J.C. (2008) The major commissions of inquiry and the first language laws. In (eds.) The French language in Québec: 400 years of history and life.
  8. Houle, R. and Cambron-Prémont, A. (2015) Les concepts et les questions posées sur les langues aux rencensements canadiens de 1901 à 1961Cahiers Québécois de Démographie, 40(2), p.291-310.
  9. Houle, R., Corbeil, J.P., and Charron, M. (2012) Les langues de travail au Québec en 2006.
  10. Lachapelle, R. and Lepage, J.F. (2010) Languages in Canada: 2006 CensusNew Canadian Perspectives.Canadian Heritage.