EDITORIAL

French-Canadians and the CNR: myths won’t help us answer the hard questions

ROBERT FULFORD January 26 1963
EDITORIAL

French-Canadians and the CNR: myths won’t help us answer the hard questions

ROBERT FULFORD January 26 1963

French-Canadians and the CNR: myths won’t help us answer the hard questions

EDITORIAL

ENGLISH-SPEAKING CANADIANS nodded sagely and smugly last month when N. R. Crump, the CPR president, explained why FrenchCanadians don’t run railroads. Crump was defending the CNR president, Donald Gordon, who had been scolded in parliament and burned in effigy in Place Ville Marie for admitting in public that he had not seen fit to appoint any French-Canadians as vice-presidents of the CNR. Mr. Crump, who also has no French-Canadian vicepresidents, insisted that this situation wasn’t his fault or Donald Gordon’s. It was the fault, he said, of classical education in Quebec.

“A classical education,” Mr. Crump said, “doesn’t tend to fit into our type of situation. Most young French graduates have wanted a profession. Young French people are not particularly attracted to railways.”

English-speaking Canadians have believed this for a long time, and it pleases us to repeat it frequently. For English-speaking Canadians there is nothing more satisfying than regarding French-Canadians as charming dreamers, full of Latin and philosophy but short on practical knowledge. This theory conveniently explains why so few major corporations promote French-Canadians to the highest executive level. The Toronto Globe and Mail, in an editorial applauding Mr. Crump's statement, placed the blame for the whole thing squarely on the French-Canadian universities:

“Quebec universities, with the exception of McGill University, have until recent years concentrated their attention on the classics and the humanities. They have scarcely admitted the existence of engineering and science. It is only lately that they have added professional courses other than the law or the church. The value of the classics and humanities cannot be overestimated; but they do not prepare students to run railroads ...”

But then, what does prepare men to run railroads? If you read the Globe, or listen to Mr. Crump, you have to assume that executive jobs in the railroads demand university training in engineering, economics. or business administration. On examination, however, this apparently reasonable proposition turns out to be a myth.

There are fourteen vice-presidents in the CPR, and sixteen in the CNR. Only seven of these thirty men have the practical higher education that it takes, judging by Mr. Crump’s remarks, to run a railroad. Half of the railway vice-presidents, in fact, didn’t graduate from university at all. and some had little or no high school. Mr. Crump himself holds an engineering degree from Purdue University,

but he started with the CPR long before he got it. Mr. Gordon didn’t go to university. Among CPR vice-presidents there are seven men who joined the railroad as junior clerks or agents, without university training. There are seven university graduates, but of these only four have engineering or business degrees. In the CNR there are three vice-presidents with engineering or business degrees, but there are four with law degrees (which Quebec universities have been granting for a long time), one with a Canadian arts degree, and one — James A. McDonald, vice-president for the St. Lawrence region — who is a Bachelor of Philosophy from Oxford.

The typical top management man in the railroads is not, in fact, a civil engineer, but a job-trained executive who came up slowly from the business side, after joining either as a teenaged clerk (J. R. Strother, vice-president for the CPR’s Atlantic region, started when he was twelve) or as a young man with general education. There are, of course, many thousands of French-Canadians who have been attracted to railroad work and who have joined at the bottom, with academic qualifications equal to or better than those of many current vice-presidents.

English-speaking Canadians also cherish the myth that the Globe repeated when it said that in past years Quebec universities “scarcely admitted the existence of engineering and science.” No one would argue that Quebec university training has emphasized these fields, but the image many of us hold — of totally impractical FrenchCanadian colleges, teaching only the classics and the old professions — withers under scrutiny. In 1920, when Mr. Crump was a CPR laborer in Revelstoke, B.C., and Mr. Gordon was a junior in the Bank of Nova Scotia, the University of Montreal already had an engineering course with 139 students. Ottawa University has taught economics since 1936; Laval didn’t get around to civil engineering till 1950, but it trained chemical engineers ten years before that and its science courses started in 1920. (The first graduates are now approaching retirement age.) In 1935. a quarter of a century ago, the University of Montreal had 213 students working toward degrees in commerce.

Today, of course, mass education in these subjects has arrived: the University of Montreal now has close to 3,000 students in courses, ranging from engineering to industrial relations, which lead naturally to important places in big corporations. But it is a serious mistake to suggest that this is an entirely new development.

These two myths — the old one about Quebec’s hopelessly impractical education, and the new one about higher education in railroading — have this much in common: they answer difficult questions in comforting but misleading ways. Is it possible that young French-Canadians have been the object of discrimination in a corporation they partly own? Is it possible that having French as youf first language is a major liability in a big North American corporation? These are among the questions English-speaking Canadians should try to answer. So long as we are willing and eager to answer them with myths, the solutions of ouc-conflicts with French-Canadians will remain beyond us.

ROBERT FULFORD