The Hamilton Spectator
Ici, on parle francais
Cathie Coward/The Hamilton SpectatorPrincipal Diane Tarantino works with students Sarah Donatien and Cody Foster as Jaida Rivest looks on at École élémentaire catholique Notre-Dame.
Hamilton is in the midst of a French mini-renaissance.
Immigrants from Africa and Haiti are beefing up the city’s French-speaking population even as the proportion of Canadians able to use the official language drops.
The number of city residents who usually speak French at home jumped 53 per cent over the past five years, to 2,245 from 1,470, according to new census data on language from Statistics Canada.
The number of people identifying French as a “mother tongue” also rose in Hamilton, Burlington and Grimsby from 11,380 to 12,660.
Over the same time period, the proportion of Canadians who reported being able to conduct a conversation in French inched down slightly to 30.1 per cent from 30.7 per cent.
“It’s an interesting trend, because while the French language story in other areas is one of assimilation and decline, in Hamilton it’s a story of growth,” said Sara Mayo of the local Social Planning and Research Council.
The local resurgence of French speakers is due largely to immigration from former French colonial countries such as Haiti, Chad, Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon and Zaire, said Lisa Breton, who heads Le Centre français Hamilton.
The surge is no accident, she added.
Breton said the federal government, through Citizenship and Immigration Canada, began pumping money into programs to aid and attract French-speaking immigrants in 2006.
“The goal was to help communities with French-speaking minorities thrive, rather than assimilate and disappear,” she said. “Family by family, I think word of mouth about (Hamilton) is getting out … I’d be happy if there are numbers now that show it is working.”
Locally, CIC funding goes to French-language integration, training and health services at the centre, Collège Boréal and Centre de santé communautaire Hamilton.
“The range of services available in your first language is something that makes you comfortable as a newcomer,” said Sébastien Skrobos, who emigrated from France last year and now works at the Le Centre français Hamilton.
After Congo and Haiti, France is still the third-most common country of origin for French newcomers making use of the centre’s services.
Skrobos, 37, came to Hamilton “very unwillingly” as a teenage exchange student but ended up “falling in love with the country.”
He decided to return last year and now organizes language classes to help other immigrants learn English. The group he has now is a representative sample of recent newcomers to Hamilton, including members from Cameroon, Congo, Chad and France.
The number of African immigrants ending up in Hamilton is increasing — but only as fast as local job prospects, said Teshome Woldeselassie of the African Canadian Network of Hamilton. “If you speak French, many will still probably look at moving to Montreal, if only for jobs,” he said.
Across the Hamilton census metropolitan area, which includes Burlington and Grimsby, the number of “non-official” languages cited as a mother tongue declined slightly between 2006 and 2011.
But in the city, 23 per cent of 2011 census respondents still listed a sole mother tongue other than English or French — and a couple of language groups grew explosively over the last five years.
The fastest-growing non-English language routinely used at home in Hamilton is Tagalog, a Filipino language listed by 1,655 residents — a 65 per cent increase over 2006. The number of Spanish speakers at home also jumped to 4,340, a 58 per cent increase over the last census.
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What we speak at home: a sample
Italian: 6,090 (7,290)
Spanish: 4,340 (2,755)
Arabic: 3,970 (3,255)
Portuguese: 3,410 (3,635)
Polish: 3,365 (3,925)
French 2,245 (1,470)
Tagalog: 1,655 (1,005)
* 2006 numbers in parentheses