English is Back in the Québec Workplace
“I just love Montreal”, I overheard a lady tell her friend in Avenue Video in Montréal. “I’d live here if I spoke French.”
“I don’t speak French”, scoffed a passerby. “Don’t worry about that.”
English is getting stronger in Montreal. I’m not the one saying it. The Montreal Gazette is saying it. There’s just no way around the numbers. Québec’s English-speaking population rose by 5.5% between 2001 and 2006 according to StatsCan.
How did this happen?
“The easy answer to the question of why young anglos aren’t leaving Quebec like they did a generation ago”, writes David Johnston, “is that they speak better French, and aren’t being chased away by political uncertainty.”
You will all remember that the “political uncertainty” started in the 1950’s and 1960’s when francophones started asking why they were paid less than any other nationality in Québec, why no francophones held any management position in Canada’s banking and finance industry and why they were forbidden to use their language to speak to each on the shop floor.
English-Canada’s business elite responded by moving the country’s entire financial sector and 800 000 jobs from Montreal to Ontario where discrimination against French-speakers was allowed.
But a more important reason, according to the Montreal edition of the Winnipeg Free Press, is that it’s getting easier and easier for English-speakers to live and work in Montreal because there has been a “cultural shift” that has made English “acceptable” in the workplace.
“By the 1990s”, continues our man, “speaking English had become more acceptable in Quebec as firms came to see the need to improve the capacity of their workforces to operate in English. This created new opportunities for anglophones.”
As if English had ever disappeared from the Québec workplace! As if the French-speaking majority of Québec that had been forced to work in English for 250 years suddenly found itself unable to communicate with the outside world in the international language of business after bill 101 gave them the right to work in French!
The failure of Bill 101
When I was a truck driver satellites communications between French-speaking drivers and French-speaking dispatchers had to be in English so the English-speaking security team in Toronto could understand what was going on.
In 2005 the Metro chain of grocery stores bought A&P Canada and Christian Haub, the CEO and chairman of the board of A&P got a seat on the Québec company’s board. Thirteen Francophones and one Anglo. Guess what language the board meeting are in now?
Yep. Even when the French businessmen win, they lose.
That’s the way the modern workplace functions. It is entirely structured around the needs of the less qualified people. French-speakers in Québec, and all non-English speaking people around the world, are required to acquire additional language skills so that unilingual Anglos won’t have to.
Québec briefly tried to change that with the Charter of the French language, but the truth is that the rules that were supposed to protect the right of Québec workers to work in their language are broken. They don’t work anymore.
They were designed for businesses that could be contained in a building, to make sure that the 15th floor would communicate in French with the 6th and 2nd floor, all the way down to the shop floor.
But businesses don’t work like that anymore. Management is in Toronto, accounting’s in Alberta and IT is in Bangalore. Toronto’s and New York’s business culture is once again being imposed on the workers of Québec, and the entire world, actually.
Québec’s workforce has always been the most multilingual in Canada, and probably one of the most linguistically versatile in the World. Québec’s business culture did not change, it’s the world’s business structure that changed.
And once again, after only a brief interruption, unilingual Anglos can come back to work in Montreal.
And just in time, as the stellar generation of brilliant financial minds that left Montreal a generation ago have now managed to completely scrap Ontario’s economy and is now ready to come back home.