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Census data on language show tip of statistical iceberg about Canada's diversity

OTTAWA — Reis Pagtakhan emphasizes the plural when he talks about the Filipino grocery stores, restaurants, newspapers and radio programs that now populate Winnipeg, decades after his family first came to the city.
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OTTAWA — Reis Pagtakhan emphasizes the plural when he talks about the Filipino grocery stores, restaurants, newspapers and radio programs that now populate Winnipeg, decades after his family first came to the city.

This week, Pagtakhan's observations about the rise of Tagalog in Winnipeg are expected to get some statistical backing when the latest tranche of census data details Canada's linguistic diversity. It is anticipated that the language heard in those Filipino stores and restaurants and on radio shows — Tagalog — will be among the fastest-growing since 2011.

For Pagtakhan, the change around Winnipeg is a far cry from when his parents arrived in Canada in the 1960s and there were only a few hundred Filipino families in the region.

Now, "you have tens of thousands of people from the Philippines who are here, many of whom speak Tagalog. … It's just spoken widespread," said Pagtakhan, an immigration lawyer.

Wednesday's release about the languages that Canadians report as their mother tongue or being spoken at home will provide a peek at Canada's ethnocultural diversity, which the national statistics office will fully reveal this fall with data from the recently returned long-form census.

In February, census data showed that the national population would have been potentially far below 35.15 million if not for an influx of immigrants that Statistics Canada said accounted for about two-thirds of the population increase between 2011 and 2016. Immigration will be the dominant source of growth by 2056, Statistics Canada predicts, as natural, fertility-fuelled growth declines due to an aging population — for the first time, there are more seniors than children 14 and under — and a declining birth rate.

The figures coming this week are expected to show some 200 languages are spoken in Canada, with seven million people — or more — saying their mother tongue is neither English nor French.

"Once you start to see all the different languages that are spoken, it really speaks to the profound diversity of our Canadian population," said Michael Haan, an associate professor in the school of sociology at Western University in London, Ont.

The figures will add another dimension to the portrait of Canada the five-year census began painting earlier this year. Additional layers will be added later this year, including income data in September, immigration and Indigenous Peoples numbers in October, and figures detailing education, jobs and work patterns in November.

The latest release will also include data about families, revealing changes in marriage rates, how much longer Canadians are waiting to start families, and how many families live under different roofs — be it because one parent is working in another part of the country, or because they are older parents choosing to live apart.

The statistics will show the varying and ever complex definition of family in Canada, which — like language — seems certain to prompt governments and service providers to rethink their policies and offerings to meet demographic dynamics.

The number of people reporting a mother tongue other than English or French has been gradually going up over time, as too have the number of different languages being spoken, says Doug Norris, chief demographer at Environics Analytics. The census data will also show how many of those households speak English, French or both on a regular basis along with their mother tongue.

"More and more homes in Canada are speaking more than one language on what they say is a regular basis and that's simply driven by immigration," said Norris, who spent three decades at Statistics Canada.

Federal data show the Philippines was the top source for immigrants last year, and a major source for immigrants since the last census in 2011. It's why Roman Catholic churches around Winnipeg are providing masses in Tagalog, and why Canada's first senator of Filipino decent has found Tagalog speakers as far as Iqaluit.

"Filipinos speak English and will do so proudly in their everyday use. However, when a large group of Filipinos are together, or when no other non-Filipino speakers are around, Tagalog is often spoken," Sen. Tobias Enverga says.

"This is an important way for Filipinos to maintain their own heritage and language while also embracing Canadian culture and values."

Statistics Canada estimated earlier this year that the Filipino community could be among the fastest growing group in Canada by 2036, although not as fast as the Arab community, which is projected to see its numbers jump by 200 per cent or more depending on immigration levels over that time.

Language ties the Arab community together because all don't share the same ethnicity, said May Telmissany, an associate professor of Arabic studies at the University of Ottawa.

"You will find that most immigrants coming from the Arab world, the only thing that they will hold on to as far as culture is concerned, is the language and this is why they tend to speak it at home, but also encourage their kids to learn it and speak it," Telmissany said.

The seeds of an immigrant language in Canada have been sown by what Haan described as pioneer immigrants, who share their language with their children while also assimilating into the broader culture. Over time with new waves of immigrants reinforcing the language, communities reach a threshold where they develop cultural institutions like grocery stores and restaurants that become mechanisms to reinforce and maintain use of the language.

But just as easily as a language can thrive, it can also decline. Norris said there are likely to be drops in the proportion of Canadians listing some European languages like Italian, German and Greek as their mother tongue as these populations age and there is little new intake to reinforce numbers.

— Follow @jpress on Twitter

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press



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