Immigrant Language in Canada

Where the immigrations of the 19th century brought mainly people of British origin to Canada, in the 20th century the immigrant population has astoundingly diverse ethnic origins.

Ethnic Languages

Where the immigrations of the 19th century brought mainly people of British origin to Canada, in the 20th century the immigrant population has astoundingly diverse ethnic origins.

Diverse Populations
One wave began in the 1890s and reached a peak around 1910. It brought in thousands of immigrants from Scotland and Ireland but also many from more diverse European homelands such as Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and the Ukraine, recruited as farmers for the vast wheatlands of the newly opened Prairie provinces and as workers for the industrializing central cities in Ontario and Montréal. Another wave began in 1946 and reached a peak around 1960, when a highly diverse immigrant population arrived, first as a result of the postwar diaspora in Europe - with thousands of Italians, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Poles, Finns and Yugoslavians, among others - and later, even more diversely, from Hungary, Czechoslavakia, Korea, China, Vietnam and the United States, as a result of political unrest.

Since 1980, Canada has received another significant wave of diverse immigrants, often as political refugees from such countries as Pakistan, Chile, Brazil, Cambodia, Somalia and El Salvador, but also from English-speaking countries in the Caribbean and from Hong Kong. Today Canadians of non-British, non-French origins represent more than 35 different ethnic groups and constitute more than 30% of the country's population.

As a result, Canada is richly multilingual. Although immigrants are free to settle wherever they choose, a disproportionate number live in Ontario. In 1961, more than one person in 6 in Ontario, with a population then of about 7.7 million, spoke an immigrant language natively. Almost 42% of Toronto residents were born outside the country. But elsewhere the proportions were also significant. Fully 58% of the population of the Prairie provinces and 21% of the population of BC was composed of immigrants. A generation later, in 1991, the census figures show that the proportion remains high in Ontario and has increased across the country: almost one in 3 people (32%) in Toronto - with a population of about 3 million - speak an immigrant language, as do 27% in Vancouver, 21% in Winnipeg and 17% in Montréal.

Stability of Immigrant Communities

Under the weight of numbers, immigrant communities in Canada's largest cities are relatively stable, having existed for longer than the current generation has lived in them, and they are often self-sustaining. Official policy also encourages maintenance of immigrant language and culture. The 1961 Royal Commission on BILINGUALISM AND BICULTURALISM determined that Canadians of non-British non-French origin clearly preferred integration to assimilation. In their terms, assimilation implies "almost total absorption into another linguistic and cultural group. An assimilated individual gives up his cultural identity and may even...change his name." On the other hand, integration "does not imply the loss of an individual's identity and original characteristics or of his original language and culture." Educational systems across Canada have provided for increased opportunity for ethnic groups to maintain their mother tongues. Immersion programs in other than official languages (see SECOND-LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION) are widely available. As a result, in Canadian cities, English is almost as commonly heard as a second-language variety rather than a native variety, and the immigrant language is maintained in some families for 3 or 4 generations and perhaps longer.

Pattern of Bilingualism

In 1991, the Census Bureau, in a unique and ingenious response to Canadian multilingual reality, asked respondents to distinguish between their "mother tongue," the language they spoke first, and their "home language," the language they use daily with their immediate families in domestic situations. More than 4 million claimed a mother tongue other than English or French. Of these, more than 50% maintain the mother tongue as their home language as well. The rapid, one-generation assimilation into one of the official language groups that was the dominant pattern for the earliest immigrants has given way to a pattern of bilingualism in which the offspring of immigrants master an official language but also maintain their ethnic linguistic heritage.


Further Reading

  • W. H. Coons et al, eds, The Individual, Language and Society in Canada (1977); John Edwards, ed, Language in Canada (1997); Rean Lachapelle and Jacques Henripin, The Demolinguistic Situation in Canada (1982); Bernard Saint-Jacques, "The Languages of Immigrants," in J.K. Chambers, ed, The Languages of Canada (1979).

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