New Brunswick bilingualism rate rises to 34%

New Brunswick saw one of the biggest jumps in English-French bilingualism rates across the country, giving it the second-highest rate after Quebec, according to the latest census data from Statistics Canada.

Latest census figures on use of French in Canada raise concerns among some francophone groups

Katherine d’Entremont, New Brunswick's commissioner of official languages, wants to analyze the census data before commenting, her office says. (Jacques Poitras)

New Brunswick saw one of the biggest jumps in English-French bilingualism rates across the country, giving it the second highest bilingualism rate after Quebec, according to the latest census data from Statistics Canada.

For some of them, and I would say a lot of them, it's just a phase to be English-speaking only.- Frédérick Dion, AFMNB

It's unclear from the data whether more anglophones are learning French, or more francophones are learning English.

But the figures are raising concerns among some francophone organizations.

"Canada is becoming more bilingual … but less francophone," Frédérick Dion, executive director of l'Association francophone des municipalités du Nouveau-Brunswick, said in a post in French on Twitter.

The increase in bilingualism in New Brunswick might be due to gradual assimilation of francophones, suggested Dion, whose group consists of 53 francophone and bilingual municipalities, representing nearly 300,000 people — more than a third of the province's population.

"We need to look more in detail at what [the numbers] mean," Dion told CBC News. "We understand that there's more French people that identify themselves as a bilingual person and they don't feel like they are French, or their main identity is French.

"But for some of them, and I would say a lot of them, it's just a phase to be English-speaking only. So … in one or two generations, they will not be bilingual and they will be completely assimilated. That's a reality and we see it in New Brunswick."

National bilingualism hits historic high

Last year, 250,460 New Brunswickers, or 34 per cent of the population, said they speak both English and French. That's up 0.8 per cent from 2011, when 33.2 per cent identified themselves as bilingual.

Only Quebec and the Northwest Territories had larger increases in bilingualism rates since the last census five years ago, the data released on Wednesday shows.

In Quebec, 44.9 per cent of the population is bilingual, 2.3 per cent more than in 2011. In the Northwest Territories, the bilingualism rate last year was 10.3 per cent, representing a 1.2 per cent increase.

Across Canada, the English-French bilingualism rate was 18 per cent — the highest proportion ever, Statistics Canada found. The previous high was 17.7 per cent in 2011.

Between 2006 and 2011, the bilingualism rate had declined in every province except Quebec, the data shows.

Katherine d'Entremont, New Brunswick's commissioner of official languages, declined to comment on the latest figures.

"The 2016 census data on language are very important to assess the vitality of our two official languages," office spokesman Hugues Beaulieu said in an email.

"The office of the commissioner will carefully analyze the data prior to commenting publicly."

Dion wants to ensure the French language is protected. He believes addressing economic challenges in rural parts of the province where francophones are concentrated could help.

As it stands, many francophones are leaving the province to find jobs, he said.

Dion also proposes increasing the number of French immigrants to counteract the decreasing proportion of francophones in New Brunswick.

"We need to put in place good policies and more effort," he said.

Changes in 'mother tongues' 

English is still the dominant mother tongue in New Brunswick, according to the census, with 473,825 people identifying it as the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood. That's down from 479,930 in 2011.

There was also a drop in the number of New Brunswickers who said French is their mother tongue — 230,005 (31 per cent of the population) in 2016, compared with 233,530 during the previous census.

The census revealed a similar decline in the number of people across Canada who report French as their mother tongue — 21.3 per cent in 2016 compared with 22.0 per cent in 2011, and as a language spoken at home (23.3 per cent in 2016 versus 23.8 per cent in 2011).

Meanwhile, more than 23,000 New Brunswickers reported neither official language as being their mother tongue, likely due to more immigration, said Statistics Canada.

Arabic is now the third-largest reported mother tongue in the province, accounting for 2,855 people, followed by Mandarin 2,255, and Indigenous languages, 2,160.

Nearly 23 per cent of Canadians reported having an "other" mother tongue in 2016, up from 21.3 per cent in 2011.