Statistics Canada has officially set the record straight on a computing error that led it to publish false information on the decline of native French speakers in Quebec last year.

The number of francophones is still declining, the federal statistics agency confirmed on Thursday, but by a smaller margin than it had initially reported. Just over 77 per cent of Quebecers still call French their mother tongue — not 76.4 per cent, as it had indicated on Aug. 2.

Statistics Canada regrets the system glitch, which “misquoted” people’s responses to the 2016 census, causing the French answers from Quebec to be read as English.

“We reacted very quickly to this series of events,” said the agency’s Marc Hamel, director general of the census population program, during a technical briefing for media on Thursday morning.

“We re-ran all the data processing with particular attention to the records that were impacted. At every step of the way, we’ve been able to verify that the (new) data coming out was as it should be.”

The error impacted a specific subset of questions from the census and answers from roughly 61,000 Quebecers. The newly-processed forms now confirm that the number of anglophones actually in Quebec decreased between 2016 and 2011, not increased, as Statistics Canada reported in its data release on languages and families earlier this month.

French in Quebec is “stable”

Despite the small decline in native French speakers, Jean-Pierre Corbeil of Statistics Canada's social and aboriginal statistics division, said that French remains “stable” both in Quebec and Canada-wide. The computer error, which initially reported an increase in native English speakers in Quebec, caused emotional turmoil for some French advocates concerned about the preservation of the language.

"The most concerning is to see that there are still citizens in Quebec that don’t understand or speak French," Jean-Paul Perreault, president of the Impératif français — a group that promotes French language and culture — told National Observer during an interview in French.

“I see a Canada that is anglicizing itself across the board and one that is losing one of its greatest advantages, (losing) what sets it apart and (losing) what makes it beautiful — which is to be a francophone country.”

The agency's error may have also had political ramifications. Soon after Statistics Canada had reported its original erroneous numbers, Quebec's Parti Québécois Opposition Leader Jean-François Lisée called for stronger legislation in the French-speaking province to stop a decline in the use of the language. It's a move Perreault supported.

"Canada needs to have a linguistic policy that’s good for the French language and that would be good for the Canada. It would give Canada an identity, but it’s losing this identity from one census to the next.”

With the corrections, the number of people who reported speaking French most often at home is now 79 per cent, not 78.3 per cent as initially reported. The number of Quebecers whose mother tongue is English also declined from 7.7 per cent in 2011 to 7.5 per cent in 2016.

The number of Canadians who report French as their mother tongue — their first language — is still declining overall, Corbeil told National Observer, but then again, so is the number of native English speakers.

"In fact, we shouldn't be surprised when we focus solely on mother tongues... for the most part because most immigrants do not have French or English as their mother tongue," he explained. "Obviously, that effects the home language. It's clear that overall, immigration still has an impact on the evolution of the language dynamic."

Statistics Canada, census, Canada Revenue Agency
Statistics Canada has slowly been releasing bits and pieces of the 2016 census since February, beginning with an overall population count of Canada. File photo by The Canadian Press

What does it mean for anglophones?

While the number of native English speakers living in Quebec decreased as a result of the agency's correction, the data reveals that the number of Quebec residents who learned English as their first official language increased between 2011 and 2016. Knowledge of English in Quebec also increased overall during the five-year period.

Sylvia Martin-Laforge of the Quebec Community Groups Network, which links more than 45 English-speaking community organizations across the province, welcomed this as a sign of growth. Despite doubled-down calls for French language protection as a result of the increase in English language presence, she called for more social services to meet the demand.

"While the numbers go up, we worry about the vitality of our community decreasing," she told National Observer. "What do I mean by that? Health and social services across the province are still spotty in English — even in Montreal it can be difficult."

She described some English communities as Quebec as "very fragile" and "very diminished" and encouraged the provincial and federal governments to use the overall amount of English spoken in Quebec — not the number of native English speakers — as a benchmark for funding decisions.

"The decrease in English as a mother tongue — as with the francophones, our community is seeing an influx of immigrants, of people from other provinces who don’t necessarily have English as a mother tongue, but they still need services in English," said Martin-Laforge.

Statistics Canada also issued a slight correction on Thursday to the rate of English-French bilingualism in Canada. Across the country, 17.9 per cent not 18 per cent of residents identified as bilingual in both official languages in 2016. It's still an all-time high, the agency confirmed, the second highest rate being 17.7 per cent of residents in 2001.

Unlikely numbers flagged early on

The system glitch that caused computers to inverse census answers from Quebec was flagged last week by demographer and historian Jack Jedwab. At the time, he told reporters that the reported spike in native English speakers living in the province was highly unlikely.

The giveaway was their location. On Aug. 2, Statistics Canada reported that over five years, roughly half of the 57,325 new anglophones in Quebec lived outside of Montreal, where English is often spoken.

That would mean, Jedwab told The Canadian Press, that these anglophones "are moving to Quebec cities they’ve never heard of."​ Outside of Montreal, most municipalities in Quebec have overwhelming francophone majorities. These include cities such as Rimouski, Saguenay, Trois-Rivieres and Shawinigan.

According to Jedwab — executive vice-president of a Quebec-based think tank called the Association for Canadian Studies — Statistics Canada's initial numbers suggested that somehow, the number of anglophones in these cities doubled or even tripled over a five-year period. He wrote to the agency's chief statistician on Aug. 9, pressing them to examine the numbers.

“We have an important responsibility to ensure the accuracy of these figures and we also want to be sure that we have a thoughtful and well-informed discussion, particularly here in Quebec where the issue is a bit emotional,” Jedwab told The Canadian Press last week.

“We want to make sure we’re operating from assumptions that are based on correct figures and clearly there was something very amiss about this.”

Statistics Canada quickly acknowledged the error, issued a formal apology, and started re-processing its data. After re-crunching the numbers, the agency further confirmed that all previous data released from the 2016 census is error-free.

Errors uncommon, but they happen

The federal agency could do little to explain the minute technicalities of how exactly the computing error occurred, other than to say it was a "programming error in a data collection procedure" that "inverted the answers provided." In order to confirm the new numbers on language, it re-processed all of the responses, made sure they lined up with other indicative statistics like education and immigration, and consulted an independent panel of experts that included Jedwab.

"We have a very comprehensive review process," said Hamel. "The census is very large enterprise and we use a very large number of processes, and systematically every one is verified at the time of conception and the use of it."

Asked what kind of errors Statistics Canada has made before, Hamel responded:

"Errors are very rare but they can happen. There was a small error also in 2011 a very different kind...We had overestimated same sex couples in a couple of communities in Canada."

The agency emphasized that nothing is more important to its staff than the quality of its data and that it will continued to review how this latest glitch occurred in order to make sure its processes can catch system errors early on.

Statistics Canada has released three collections of data from the latest five-year census beginning in February with the overall population count – 35.15 million – and trends, followed by details about the country’s rapidly aging population in May.

The agency will add more layers to the portrait of the country the census paints in the coming months, including income data in September, immigration and Indigenous Peoples numbers in October and figures detailing education, jobs and work patterns in November.

— with files from The Canadian Press

Editor's Note: This piece was updated at 2:30 p.m. and 4:02 p.m. E.T. on Thurs. Aug. 17, 2017 to include quotes from Impératif français and the Quebec Community Groups Network.

Investigative journalism has never been more important. Will you help?



Today's must read