Section 1 Definitions of Ontario's French-speaking population

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Data sources

This statistical portrait of Ontario's official-language minority contains information drawn from Canadian census variables. The census includes no fewer than six questions or sub-questions that provide information on official languages, namely knowledge of official languages, language spoken most often at home, other languages spoken on a regular basis at home, mother tongue, language used most often at work, and other languages used on a regular basis at work.

What is the definition of the official-language minority group in Ontario? What defines who is a Francophone? There is no established definition of Francophone. For historical reasons, Statistics Canada has generally used the criterion of mother tongue, that is, the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood at the time of the census. Statistics based on mother tongue have the advantage of being roughly comparable going back more than half a century.

Other criteria are also used, opening the way for either more inclusive or more restrictive definitions of French-speaking persons. Thus, does the definition of a Francophone in Ontario apply to some 510,000 persons with French as their mother tongue1, 540,000 persons with French as their first official language spoken, or 544,000 persons2 who speak French most often (322,000) or on a regular basis (222,000) at home? Or should a broader definition be considered? Such a definition might include all of the approximately 1.4 million French speakers, or indeed more if we include young children who do not speak French, but who have at least one parent whose mother tongue is French.

Also, in choosing a strategy for estimating a language group, it is important to take account of two main considerations. On the one hand, if the objective is to enumerate the population considering all language groups on an equal basis—in other words, treating them symmetrically and creating mutually exclusive categories for estimating them (e.g., English, French, Other), then this implies an appropriate allocation of multiple responses. In this case, the French mother tongue population of Ontario would become 510,240 persons. On the other hand, if the objective is to focus on a single language group (e.g., Francophones), the criteria for inclusion can be broadened without being concerned about the implicit overlaps between language groups. In this case, the number of French mother tongue persons in Ontario will attain 533,000.

In this statistical portrait of Ontario Francophones, two criteria will mainly be used: mother tongue and first official language spoken.3 The latter criterion is now used increasingly as a criterion for defining language groups in studies on official-language minorities. The reason for this is that shifts over the years in the composition of the Canadian population tend to call for a redefinition or broadening of the concept of Francophone group or community, since a significant number of persons whose mother tongue is neither French nor English nevertheless use French either predominantly or commonly in their daily lives.

A number of considerations lay behind the creation of the concept of "first official language spoken." Firstly, the substantial increase in immigration since the mid-1980s has had the effect of increasing the size of the population with a mother tongue other than French or English (20% in 2006). Such persons are often designated by the term "allophones."

Since an allophone cannot become a Francophone on the basis of mother tongue, but can become one by adopting French as the language used most often at home or in the public sphere, the question arises as to how to designate individuals' first official language, or, more specifically, how to allocate allophones between French and English based on the reported knowledge of one and/or the other of the official languages.

Questions of this type led to the development of different variants of the concept of first official language spoken (Statistics Canada, 1989)4. This concept echoes the spirit of the current version of the Official Languages Act (1988) which specifies, in section 32(2), that the government may have regard to "the English or French linguistic minority population of the area served by an office or facility, the particular characteristics of that population and the proportion of that population to the total population of that area."

The concept of first official language was chosen by the federal government, in December 1991, in the Official Languages (Communications with and Services to the Public) Regulations. Section 2 of the Regulations describes the method used to determine "the first official language spoken," namely the first of the two variants presented in Statistics Canada (1989), a method that successively takes account of the responses to the questions on knowledge of official languages, mother tongue and language spoken most often at home. The "first official language spoken" variable is thus not a census question but is instead derived from three questions in the language module of the census.

The concept of first official language spoken (FOLS) serves to allocate the Canadian population between the country's two main language groups. Thus, in Canada, just over 97% of the population has either English or French as its first official language spoken. The residual portion is comprised of persons who cannot conduct a conversation in either English or French (1.6 %) and persons who know both official languages and who cannot be assigned one or the other of the two official languages on the basis of the three census variables used for this purpose (1.1%).

Unlike with the population with French as a mother tongue, French FOLS excludes persons for whom French is the mother tongue who reported being unable to conduct a conversation in French at the time of the census. Also, the Francophone population (based on FOLS) includes persons with an "other" mother tongue (i.e., other than French or English) who speak French most often at home as well as those who, while having a non-official language as the main home language, can also conduct a conversation in French but not in English. It also includes half the persons who can conduct a conversation in French and English and who speak another language or both official languages most often at home.

This report will draw a statistical portrait of Ontario Francophones, primarily using the FOLS criterion, but also, when relevant, information on mother tongue5. Following the practice of the Treasury Board Secretariat, Ontario's Francophone population will refer here to persons having only French as their first official language spoken (FOLS) and half of those persons who have both French and English as FOLS, that is, persons for whom it is not possible to assign either French or English based on responses to the three variables mentioned above.

Data sources

This portrait of the French-speaking population in Ontario contains information drawn from Canadian censuses from 1951 to 2006 and the Survey on the Vitality of Official-Language Minorities (SVOLM)6 conducted in 2006 by Statistics Canada.

Census: The census data contained in this report are drawn from the long census questionnaire, completed by 20% of households and including 61 questions of which 7 are language-related.

Survey on the Vitality of Official-Language Minorities (SVOLM): This is a cross-sectional sample survey. Respondents to the SVOLM were selected from the sample of persons who completed the long questionnaire in the 2006 Census.

The survey focuses on Canada's official-language minorities, namely French-speaking persons outside Quebec and English-speaking persons in Quebec. The data can be used to gain a deeper understanding of the current situation of individuals belonging to these two groups on subjects as varied as education in the minority language, access to different services in the minority language (the health care sector in particular), language practices in daily activities both in the home and outside the home, and matters of linguistic identity.


  1. The figure is 533,000 if all single and multiple responses mentioning French are included.
  2. This figure includes all single or multiple responses mentioning French.
  3. In June 2009, the Ontario government adopted a new, inclusive definition of the Francophone population (IDF) (formerly defined according to the criterion of mother tongue). This definition is fairly similar to the one based on first official language spoken, except that it also includes persons with French as a mother tongue and who understand French but can no longer conduct a conversation in that language. Thus, it covers 532,850 persons with French as a mother tongue (single and multiple responses), 13,225 persons with an "other" mother tongue (i.e., neither French nor English) and French as a first official language spoken (FOLS) and half of the 73,210 persons (or 36,605) with an "other" mother tongue and both French and English as their FOLS.
  4. Statistics Canada, Population Estimates by First Official Language Spoken, Ottawa, Statistics Canada, Housing, Family and Social Statistics Division and Language Studies, 1989.
  5. Except where specifically referring to Francophones based on the mother-tongue criterion, this document uses first official language spoken to designate the Francophone or French-speaking population. In that sense, the target population in this document differs slightly from that in the report on the initial findings of the SVOLM released in December of 2007.
  6. For information on the SVOLM, the reader is invited to consult the Statistics Canada website.
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