Arabic overtakes Italian as top language spoken in Hamilton homes, after English

Newly released data from the 2016 census shows most non-English-speaking households speak Cantonese, Mandarin or some dialect of Chinese, followed by Arabic and Italian.

2016 census: Most non-English-speaking households in Hamilton speak a Chinese dialect

As the percentage of households in which English is not the primary language declines, Hamilton's immigration numbers still seem to be far below the provincial average. (Adina Bresge/The Canadian Press)

In Hamilton's non-English-speaking households, the single most spoken language is now Arabic, overtaking Italian for the first time.

But statistics show immigration in Hamilton may still be well below the provincial average, which a workforce analyst fears could be detrimental to Hamilton's economy. 

The newly released data from the 2016 census show how demographics are changing in Hamilton's population, according to analysis by the Social Planning and Research Council (SPRC) of Hamilton.

Italian-speakers have declined by about 34 per cent since 2006, largely due to an aging population. Meanwhile the percentage of those who speak Arabic at home has grown by about 60 per cent, to about 5,210 households.

That's almost twice the number of homes as the ones where French is the primary language spoken at home, which is showing a similar rate of growth nonetheless.

Also declining are the proportion of people who speak Polish, Portuguese and Serbian.

On the other hand, showing significant growth are the proportion of those who speak Spanish at home, by about 53 per cent, and those who speak Tagalog at home, by about 89 per cent.

An indication Hamilton's immigration numbers either stalled or declining

But despite the encouraging rates of growth, the numbers themselves indicate that the city's immigration numbers are either stalled or declining.

"Often Hamilton has been seen as an immigrant community, but that's in the past," said the SPRC's Sara Mayo. The city's immigration numbers have long hovered below the provincial average.

"Ontario's immigrants are just not choosing Hamilton as much."

The surge in Arabic speakers does not come as a surprise, Mayo said.

Of the 12 per cent of Hamilton households where English isn't the primary language, the vast majority speak Mandarin, Cantonese or some Chinese dialect, with Mandarin just edging out on top.

"Even before last year's influx of Syrian refugees, we knew that there has been an increase in immigrants from the Middle East for quite a while."

Of the 12 per cent of Hamilton households where English isn't the primary language, the vast majority speak Mandarin, Cantonese or some Chinese dialect, with Mandarin just edging out on top.

Since the census form records open answers, the exact number for each dialect is vague. A total of 5,305 respondents said they speak a Chinese dialect at home.

English-speaking households are up

StatsCan released the data on Tuesday, saying almost 7.6 million Canadians reported speaking a language other than English or French at home in 2016, more than 14.5 per cent more than in 2011.

Moreover, the proportion of the Canadian population who speak more than one language at home rose from 17.5 per cent in 2011 to 19.4 per cent in 2016.

"Home languages are really important for service providers to determine what languages they should be providing services in, especially (to reach) newcomers who aren't as integrated into community services," explained Mayo. 

A greater share of Hamilton households speaking English at home

Census data also reveals that more and more Hamilton households are speaking English at home, up to 88 per cent in 2016. This is up from the previous longform census in 2006, which recorded 85 per cent of families speaking primarily in English at home.

Amir and Radwan Al Rahmo, ages 3 and 5, lived in a Lebanese refugee camp before coming to Canada. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

According to Mayo, the numbers follow a trend that researchers have long noticed, that there's a smaller number of households where other languages are the primary ones.

"Between the '50s and '70s, there were huge rates of immigration, especially from European countries, and now that's changing," she said.

With the removal of the Enemy Alien Act in 1947, and following the industrial boom that saw Canada needing more labourers and workers, Italian immigrants came to Canada in record numbers. 

Between 1946 and 1983, it is estimated that around 500,000 Italians came to Canada, and with many settling in Hamilton, the city benefited economically as a result.

Hamilton's population now older than average for Ontario

But these numbers have been down for a while. From 2006 to 2011, Hamilton's immigrant population grew by only 2.9 per cent while Ontario's went up by 4 per cent.

And while the latest immigration statistics from last year's census won't be available till November, the language trends do not look encouraging. And that's a problem, says Mayo.

"Part of what we think of as a strong economic period for Hamilton was very much due to immigration. We were attracting immigrants who did hard labour in all sorts of industries, especially steel," she says.

"Hamilton right now has an older population than the average for Ontario, and less immigration, so we need immigrants to increase our growth rate and economy."