Language, Religion and Difference: An Empirical Study from Québec and Anglo-Canada

Published: 15 July 2021

In a blog post from the CCC’s summer school, Övgü Ülgen examines the experience of North African Jews in Montréal and Toronto, assessing the role that the language and religion of the host society plays in fostering their integration.

How do linguistic and religious contexts that immigrants find themselves in shape their sense of belonging and identity formation in Canada? Language and religion are identity categories that are often interrelated. The appearance of immigrant groups distinguished by religion and language are symbolic of far-reaching issues of inclusion and exclusion, which are matters of identity and social structures that emerge from their extended relations in the host society. In this blog post, I will focus on Canadian pluralism in two cities (Montréal and Toronto) and explore the conditions under which language and religion exhibit difference. Drawing on 30 life-story interviews, I will turn my attention to North African Jews who came to live in these two major Canadian cities.

Multiculturalism – Interculturalism

The Canadian federal government enacted a policy of bilingualism in 1969, most notably through the initiative of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This policy was later supplanted by that of multiculturalism in 1971, which was then revised with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988. The rejection of Québec’s status as a distinct society (due to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord), combined with the concern that taking a multicultural approach that overemphasizes individuals’ rights at the expense of those of the Québécois nation, has led many members of that nation to oppose multiculturalism in favour of an alternative model, that of interculturalism. (For more, see article). For those who think they are significantly different (e.g. the Liberal Party of Québec in 1990), interculturalism includes a reciprocal effort, a moral contract, between the host society and the newcomers. This intercultural vision of diversity asserts that the French language functions to establish and sustain a collective identity through dialogue.

Learning From the Empirical

The wave of North African Jewish immigration to Canada, especially Moroccan, which started in the second half of the twentieth century, bolstered the francophone population of Canadian Jewry in Québec. These immigrants were distinct from both the established anglophone Ashkenazi Jewish community, who had already been living in the province much earlier, and French Canadians, who were distinguished by their Catholicism.

Graph 1: North African Jews in Montréal

In Montréal, there has been a robust rapprochement between the Québécois majority and first-generation North African Jewish immigrants. Their linguistic commonality with the French-speaking Québécois majority population rightfully indicates the success of an intercultural model of citizenship. Yet historical events that, in some cases, are concurrently linked to the religious identity of the participants suggest a lower sense of belonging among the 1.5 and second-generation immigrants and delineate the failure of intercultural inclusion through French as a common language. For instance, North African Jews were not initially allowed to attend French-language public schools in Québec. It appears that when religiously different newcomers arrive in Québec, ambiguities and inequalities arise. 

There is no Canadian study that yet addresses the structure of the Jewish community from North Africa, with the exception of that which exists in the province of Québec. However, it turns out that whereas the majority of Francophone Moroccan Jews live in Québec, the majority of Hispanophone Jews of northern Morocco live in Toronto. In the narratives presented to me by my Toronto interviewees, the majority-minority relations and linguistic and cultural differences among Jews of northern (Hispanophone) and southern (Francophone) Morocco became salient.

Graph 2: North African Jews in Toronto


In Toronto, rather than actively participating in public life, my interviewees told me that they found they had things in common with people from the same origin by aligning themselves through shared activities. They developed a sense of commonality among themselves and thus strengthened the differences between them and the majority group. Therefore, there is less rapprochement between Anglo Gentiles and immigrants in Toronto, even though everyone speaks the same language. In Montréal, the French language forges a bond between North African Jews and the majority population and helps the process of institutionalization and public recognition of the community. Yet it also turns out that ambiguities and inequalities are often revealed when religiously different newcomers appear on the scene in Montréal. My comparative overview in two host societies details continuing negotiations that immigrants face with incorporation, which would also be explored in linguistically and religiously diverse societies like Canada.


Övgü Ülgen is a PhD candidate at the Université de Montréal. Her research, which has been funded by FRQSC and IRTG Diversity, focuses on pluralism, diversity and identity in Canada. She earned her undergraduate degree in Turkey and her M.A. degree at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, France for which she was awarded a scholarship. She tweets @OvguUlgen


Photo by the Bialons on Unsplash