The evolution of language populations in Canada, by mother tongue, from 1901 to 2016

Early in the 20th century, most Canadians’ mother tongue was either French or English. In 1901, about one-tenth of the population declared an Aboriginal language or an immigrant language as their mother tongue. The concept of mother tongue was not defined in the Canadian census until 1941, when it was defined as the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood.

Over the next 115 years, Canada’s linguistic profile became considerably more diverse. The share of Canadians with French as a mother tongue declined, while the proportion of Canadians whose mother tongue is neither French nor English increased in line with various waves of immigration over time.

Evolution of the population by mother tongue, as a
percentage of the total population, 1901 to 2016, Canada

Changes in the three major linguistic groups in Canada

The share of people whose mother tongue is English varied slightly from 1901 to 2016. It was around 60% over this period, ranging from a high of 62.3% in 1911 to a low of 56.5% in 1941. Since 1986, however, this share has been gradually decreasing. In 2016, people with English as their mother tongue accounted for 57.0% of the total Canadian population, compared with 62.2% in 1986.

The share of the population whose mother tongue is English and that of the overall population whose mother tongue is a non-official language evolved in opposite directions; when the share of people whose mother tongue is English increased, the share of those whose with a non-official language as a mother tongue decreased, and vice versa.

From 1901 to 1986, the share of the population with a non-official language as a mother tongue varied between 8% and 13%, reflecting international migratory flows. Without sustained migration, this population tended to decline, as it did from 1931 to 1951, during the 1970s and in the first half of the 1980s.

Since the early 1990s, however, the number of immigrants admitted to Canada has been consistently high – between about 200,000 and 250,000 per year. As a result, in 2016, 22.0% of the total population declared a language other than English and French as a mother tongue. This population is highly heterogeneous in terms of language. In the 2016 Census, more than 130 immigrant languages were recorded.

In the 2016 Census, 213,225 people reported an Aboriginal language as a mother tongue, accounting for 0.6% of the population. Although their enumeration was certainly not complete, the 1901 Census counted close to 77,000 people whose mother tongue is an Aboriginal language, representing 1.4% of the population.

Aboriginal languages in Canada have been evolving over generations. Many Aboriginal languages are unique to Canada, spoken nowhere else in the world. Several Aboriginal languages are now “endangered” with few people reporting speaking them, while a few others are considered “viable” in the long term. Past events have significantly harmed the vitality of Aboriginal languages in Canada. These include the implementation of the residential school system, under which generations of Aboriginal children were not permitted to speak their Aboriginal mother tongues.

The relative share of the population whose mother tongue is French in Canada was also affected by fluctuations in the size of populations with a mother tongue other than English or French. The two great waves of immigration in the early 20th century and after the Second World War led to a decrease in the proportion of people whose mother tongue is French. Despite the impact of immigration, people who declared French as their mother tongue maintained their population levels into the 1950s because of high fertility rates. Since the 1951 Census, this population’s share has steadily decreased in Canada.

In 1941, 29.3% of the Canadian population declared French as their mother tongue. This was the highest level since 1901. By 2016, this proportion had fallen to 21.0%, a decrease of more than eight percentage points over a 75-year period.

Definitions Mother tongue

First language learned at home in childhood and still understood at the time of the census. For the definition used in the censuses at the beginning of the 20th century, see Houle et Cambron-Prémont (2015).

Aboriginal languages

Languages native to the North American continent. These include Cree languages, Inuktitut and Dene, among others.

Immigrant languages

Languages– other than French, English and Aboriginal languages –whose presence in Canada is originally due to immigration. These include German, Chinese, Ukrainian, Spanish, Italian and Punjabi, among others.

Non-official languages

Aboriginal and immigrant languages combined.

Statistics Canada

Release date: February 21, 2018