CANADA

Greener pastures

Lured by jobs and stability, some francophones are leaving Quebec

BRENDA BRANSWELL March 24 1997
CANADA

Greener pastures

Lured by jobs and stability, some francophones are leaving Quebec

BRENDA BRANSWELL March 24 1997

Greener pastures

CANADA

Lured by jobs and stability, some francophones are leaving Quebec

BRENDA BRANSWELL

For Montrealer Pierre Whitlock, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel: within 18 months, he will complete his medical residency and be ready to launch a potentially lucrative career as a hematologist and oncologist. But like many other francophones, Whitlock is considering his options outside Quebec. The 36-yearold, who is also a pharmacist, is disheartened by deep cuts to the province’s health-care system, including caps on the salaries of new doctors. Having invested so much time and money, Whitlock is casting a wide net in search of a pay package that will reflect his credentials. Already, he has made the trek to a New Brunswick hospital to check out a job possibility and may look even farther afield in the months ahead. “If I’m offered better conditions elsewhere, I think I’d go,” says Whitlock. If he could choose, Whitlock says he would prefer a place where he can live in both cultures. But he knows he may be forced to compromise. “If it means going to a strictly anglophone milieu,” he says, “I’d still go.”

It is a decision that other Quebec francophones are making, albeit with much less fanfare than their anglophone counterparts. While it is not known how many francophones have left the province in recent years, figures compiled by Statistics Canada show that, last summer, Quebec suffered the biggest net loss of people to other provinces since the summer of 1983. The exodus has been mostly made up of anglophones, who leave the province in far greater numbers than other Quebecers, but francophones from all backgrounds are also part of the outflow. Some of them say the reason is Quebec’s double-digit unemployment. Others, looking for raises and promotions, find greater opportunities in strong financial centres like Toronto and Calgary. And while many transplants do not attribute their decision to politics, some are clearly uneasy about the province’s political future. “Nobody wants to admit it,” says Rodrigue Gilbert, Toronto president of the Université de Montréal’s business school

alumni association. “It’s kind of like betraying your own people.”

Whatever the reasons, Quebec may be in danger of losing some of the best and brightest among its francophone population. A poll published by the Fédération des médecins résidents du Québec last fall, for example, showed that 52 per cent of respondents, mostly francophones, were seriously considering a medical career outside Quebec. Broad cuts, such as a 30-per-cent reduction in the salaries of some new medical specialists, coupled with fewer dollars for health care, may be encouraging that mind-set, according to federation president Denis Soulières. Some fear they will not be able to provide the same standard of care as in the past, he explains. They also believe there are warmer welcomes waiting for them elsewhere. “Doctors don’t feel like they are wanted in Quebec,” he says.

For those in business and the professions,

the incentive to pull up stakes may be even more powerful. A study released last November by Dun & Bradstreet found that more than 500 Montreal head offices have moved to Toronto since 1977, a year after the Parti Québécois first took office. The subsequent flight of anglophones down Highway 401 to Toronto and beyond has been well documented, but observers say they are now seeing some francophones following in their footsteps. Some Montreal headhunters, for instance, now say that francophones are exhibiting a greater willingness than in the past to consider jobs outside Quebec. ‘You wouldn’t have heard that before,” says Manon Vennat, chairman and managing director at the Montreal recruiting firm of Spencer Stuart.

Not surprisingly, corner-office jobs appear to be one of the biggest motivators for peripatetic francophones. Jean-Pierre Hurtubise, of management consultants

Ladouceur; Deloitte & Touche Groupe

Gilbert (left): Conseil, has noticed a

‘It’s kind of like greater willingness among

betraying your francophone middle and

own people’ upper managers to move

to Ontario, the western provinces and outside the country. “We can guess that it’s to find challenging management jobs,” says Hurtubise, “because many decision-making positions have moved to Ontario.”

Although its size and proximity make Toronto a logical destination, it is by no means the only choice. Nathalie Ladouceur, 29, arrived in Calgary from Montreal a year ago and landed an administrative job with the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta. A native of Quebec’s Pontiac region in the Outaouais, Ladouceur says Quebec’s uneasy political atmosphere partly motivated her decision to leave Montreal when her contract with the federal government ended early last year. “I was fed up,” says Ladouceur of Quebec’s obsession with the referendum. “I’d had enough. I wanted us to talk about the economy, about positive things.”

The transition, however, can be bumpier than expected. Denis Meilleur, general

manager of the association, says he sees between 15 and 20 francophones a month, mostly Quebecers, seeking information about Calgary’s 15,000-strong francophone community—a sharp increase from the occasional visitor who dropped by when Meilleur first took over the position two years ago. Most of those looking for work fall into one of two categories, Meilleur says: young, underemployed Quebecers whose English is insufficient for most jobs, or bilingual, “well-qualified people who know the Calgary job market.” While the latter generally have little difficulty finding work, those with fewer skills are often disappointed. Meilleur says the city is not the economic mecca that many imagine. “Generally, they have to take a position that they are overqualified for,” he says.

Wherever they land, many francophones seem keenly aware of the cultural boundaries they are crossing. But working in English Canada, they say, does not have to mean leaving their heritage behind. When Jacques Charette was unable to find a suitable Montreal location for his condom store almost five years ago, he moved it to Toronto. “It was really a business decision,” says Charette,

“which I don’t regret at all.” His Condom Shack has done so well that Charette has since opened a second store that sells products such as massage oil and candles. Determined to speak French as much as possible, Charette began organizing weekly francophone get-togethers called Les mercredis francofun, which regularly draw about 50 people.

Charette, like some francophones who have left Quebec recently, says that he is seeing a steady influx of like-minded people into Toronto. And Gilbert says the local chapter of his alumni association has grown from 10 members in 1986 to more than 300 today. Some ex-Montrealers, like lawyer Nathalie Mercure, 32, even say they are getting to like the place. Mercure, a member of a law firm with offices in both cities, was temporarily transferred to the Toronto office more than two years ago. But she ended up staying—and has since married an anglophone. Although people warned her she would find Toronto boring, Mercure defends the city, calling it “very cosmopolitan.” She also finds it more stimulating professionally because the transactions she works on tend to be larger. And then there is the money. “Since I left Montreal, I’ve had a significant salary increase,” says Mercure.

A few of those who talked to Maclean’s about leaving Quebec acknowledged—though sometimes on condition of anonymity—that uncertainty about Quebec’s political future did factor into their decision. “How could it not?” said one former Quebecer, now a Toronto broker. It was not just the threat of separation, he added, but high taxes and a mammoth deficit—economic ills that many Quebecers openly blame on the province’s political instability. “I think it’s a number of different factors and at some point they hook up,” he explained. Another vice-president of a Toronto brokerage firm said he put his house up for sale the day after the 1995 referendum. “I got goose bumps,” said the man, recalling former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau’s referendum night remark blaming the government’s loss on “money and the ethnic vote.” His principal reason for moving, he adds, was to cut down on travel time because much of his work was in Toronto.

A safe landing, of course, does not always mean there are no regrets. Procter & Gamble employee Francis Perrin, 25, says he would like to give something back to Montreal, where he was raised. “All other things being equal, if I had been offered a job there,

I would have stayed,” he says. But, for him and other francophones—at least for now— chez nous doesn’t have a Quebec address.

with DANYLO HAWALESHKA