French is the mother tongue of approximately 7.2 million Canadians (20.6 per cent of the Canadian population, second to English at 56 per cent) according to the 2016 Canadian Census. Most Canadian native speakers of French live in Quebec, the only province where French is the majority and the sole official language. 71.2 percent of Quebec’s population are native francophones, and 95 percent of the population speak French as their first or second language.
Additionally, about one million native francophones live in other provinces, forming a sizable minority in New Brunswick, which is officially a bilingual province; approximately one-third of New Brunswick’s population is francophone. There are also French-speaking communities in Manitoba and Ontario, where francophones make up approximately 4 percent of the population, as well as significantly smaller communities in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan – approximately 1 to 2 percent. Many of these communities are, in the contemporary era, supported by French-language institutions. In 2016, 29.8 percent of Canadians reported being able to conduct a conversation in French.
By the 1969 Official Languages Act, both English and French are recognized as official languages in Canada and granted equal status by the Canadian government. While French, with no specification as to dialect or variety, has the status of one of Canada’s two official languages at the federal government level, English is the native language of the majority of Canadians. The federal government provides services and operates in both languages.
The provincial governments of Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba are required to provide services in French where justified by the number of francophones. French is also an official language of all three Canadian territories: the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon. Whatever that status of the French or English languages in a province or territory, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires all provinces and territories to provide primary and secondary education to their official-language minorities.
In 1524, the Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano, working for Italian bankers in France, explored the American coast from Florida to Cape Breton Island. In 1529, Verrazzano mapped a part of the coastal region of the North American continent under the name Nova Gallia (New France). In 1534, King Francis I of France sent Jacques Cartier to explore previously unfamiliar lands. Cartier found the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, sealed an alliance with the local people and obtained passage to go farther. During his second expedition (1535–1536), Cartier came upon the Saint Lawrence River, a path into the heart of the continent. However, Cartier failed to establish a permanent colony in the area, and war in Europe kept France from further colonization through the end of the 16th century.
At the beginning of the 17th century, French settlements and private companies were established in the area that is now eastern Canada. In 1605, Samuel de Champlain founded Port Royal (Acadia), and in 1608 he founded Quebec City. In 1642, the foundation of Ville Marie, the settlement that would eventually become Montreal, completed the occupation of the territory.
In 1634, Quebec contained 200 settlers who were principally involved in the fur trade. The trade was profit-making and the city was on the point of becoming more than a mere temporary trading post.
In 1635, Jesuits founded the secondary school of Quebec for the education of children. In 1645, the Compagnie des Habitants was created, uniting the political and economic leaders of the colony. French was the language of all the non-native people.
In 1685, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV (1654–1715), which had legalized freedom of religion of the Reformed Church, caused the emigration from France of 300,000 Huguenots (French Calvinists) to other countries of Europe and to North America.
With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the British began their domination of eastern North America, some parts of which had been controlled by the French. The British took mainland Nova Scotia in 1713. Present-day Maine fell to the British during Father Rale’s War, while present-day New Brunswick fell after Father Le Loutre’s War. In 1755 the majority of the French-speaking inhabitants of Nova Scotia were deported to the Thirteen Colonies. After 1758, they were deported to England and France. The Treaty of Paris (1763) completed the British takeover, removing France from Canadian territory, except for Saint Pierre and Miquelon at the entrance of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
The French language was relegated to second rank as far as trade and state communications were concerned. Out of necessity, the educated class learned the English language and became progressively bilingual, but the great majority of the French-speaking inhabitants continued to speak only French, and their population increased. Anglicization of the French population failed, and it became obvious that coexistence was required. In 1774, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, restoring French civil laws and abrogating the Test Act, which had been used to suppress Catholicism.