Quebec’s English: a vanishing minority
Emerson Hughes was born, grew up and became bilingual in Quebec. The province was home and he wanted to stay. But on November 16, the day after the Parti Québécois election victory, he reluctantly stuck a FOR SALE sign on the lawn of his grey stone house in Montreal’s anglophone West End. After months of doubt, the time had finally come to leave. Hughes is just one of hundreds of Quebec Anglos now making the most wrenching decision of their lives. And though they make up only about 13% of the Quebec population, the Anglos are a powerful remnant of a once dominant commercial class, still claiming a disproportionate influence on the professional and financial life of the province.
But Hughes, like others, could no longer ignore the indicators of change. As an executive recruitment consultant for a firm with 12,000 middleand upper-income managers on file, he saw after the election a sudden dramatic increase in the numbers bent on leaving. Mostly Anglos, they weren’t interested in any job within the province. A typical sentiment: “If I have to move, it will be out.” Others said their companies were planning to move in a year or two and they would go with them. The hiring pool in the rest of Canada and the United States was drying up quickly with every PQ vagary on the future of the English language. “How many businessmen are prepared to isolate their families and jeopardize their children’s career by coming here now?” Hughes asks. Small and medium-sized companies—his clients—were moving away, “quietly, with no fanfare, step by step, department by department.” The lifeblood of business—the young, the mobile, the station wagon consumers—were flowing out. He was faced with a shrinking market and fears that his three sons would not be able to compete with francophones in the future Quebec. Now, the decision made, he has the comfort of knowing that in a year he and most of his five associates will be living and working in Toronto. At 34, Hughes is tall, tanned, athletic and, just now, highly agitated. He drives around his Pierrefonds neighborhood stabbing an accusatory finger at the forest of FOR SALE signs. Half the houses in his block are up for bids. A few doors down is an engineer who wanted out so badly he gave up research for a teaching job in Calgary. Farther down is a federal civil servant who asked to be transferred to Ottawa. Not far away, an “anglicized” French-Canadian consulting engineer is leaving. After four months on the market, the Hughes house sold at 20% less than the
market value before the election. He was lucky. Most of his neighbors, such as Mike Ross, who is moving his pulp and paper equipment plant to Ontario, haven’t had a single offer. “The man on the street hasn’t really begun to see the exodus yet,” warns Hughes. “But the decisions are being made day to day, and when (the man on the street) finds out it will be too late to reverse the process.”
For the English of Quebec, this is the climax of an historical process, the decline of power in the face of the Québécois’ emerging will to survive and to be “maitre chez nous.” For many, the election crystallized the need to make a decision—to stay or leave; to accept the French fact and integrate, or pull up roots and start fresh elsewhere. Whether Quebec separates or not, there is a feeling among Anglos that things will never be the same for them as the province moves to “francicize” business and restrict the right to English-language education for newcomers. And Quebec is prepared to pay a price to shape its own future. Says the province’s economic development minister, Bernard Landry: “Quebec, progressively, will become just as French as Ontario is English. I think everyone is well aware that the new conditions in Quebec may turn away certain persons. It’s an unavoidable part of Quebec’s selfdevelopment.”
Although it is too soon to say how widespread the movement of Anglos is, there are dramatic signs of a quickening of the trend of the past few years that has seen people and funds move steadily and stealthily out of the province. Those leaving are the ones who can—the professionals, the retired, the small family manufacturer with outside markets. Most are heading to Ontario, the western provinces or the United States, particularly Florida (see box). Their reasons are a complex of
emotionalism and hard economic considerations. Those who stay, willing to see the province through a period of turbulence in hopes of eventual calm, do so in the belief the province will not separate. “I’m riding it out,” says 36-year-old lawyer David Appel, “on a day-to-day basis. If I saw the government was patently racist or if I saw my children and myself at a dead end I would move.” A 33-year-old dentist, who is now moving to Ontario says: “I’m leaving because we’ll be legislated into second class citizens.”
The indicators have been adding up for some time. In a recent speech, former federal finance minister John Turner commented: “The real estate market in Montreal is dead.” In December and January, the number of houses listed in anglophone areas increased dramatically (as high as 365% over the same period last year in some areas), while sales dropped and prices dipped by 10% or more. The AngloProtestant Lakeshore School Board has a net loss of 300 students since September, even though most years they get a net increase. Properties in eastern Ontario (an area that has been booming in recent years because of the Quebec influx) are selling briskly. Lawyers, accountants, engineers, dentists and doctors are nervously making enquiries and applications to practise throughout the country and the United States. A Quebec Bar trustee said that about 100 lawyers had applied since the election for certificates of good standing, necessary in order to practise elsewhere. The Law Society of Alberta received about 70 enquiries since the election—“a significant rise.” The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario admitted 161 Quebec accountants from July, 1976, to February, 1977, compared to 73 in the same period the previous year. The Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario reports: “There is a movement, it may be a trend.” The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta has received about 50 “serious” applications since the election. The Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario gave licences to 49 Quebec dentists from January to March 4, compared to six in the corresponding period last year—“unusually high.” The College of Dental Surgeons of BC registered 16 from Quebec from November to March compared to one during the same period last year. Almost all the associations made it clear that many of the professionals were taking out dual licenses as a precaution. As Dr. Donald Aitken of the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons put it: “My impression
is that they are pursuing options for the future. It’s sort of like getting a passport even if you may not be planning a trip.”
Most of these professionals, in the process of selling their practices and homes now, are afraid to talk on the record. Like many Anglos, they don’t want to be seen as running away, nor do they want to risk reprisals. They have come to accept the Québécois’ yearning for control of his own province, but at the same time they are unwilling to give up the privileged position that the change will ultimately bring about. Behind the mask of anonymity, deeply-felt concern, justified or not, spills outjerkily.
A 35-year-old corporate lawyer, who had been enquiring for the past two years about leaving, transferred his savings to Ottawa the day after the election. By moving, he expects to lose about half his $45,000 annual income, because as a graduate of civil law he must requalify to practise common law. For the past year, he and his wife have been living a temporary existence, “sitting on a packed suitcase, everything mobile and liquid. It’s a shitty way to live. I can’t work some days. You could stick around, but you’re not equal.”
A 33-year-old dentist moving to Ontario is finding it hard to sell his downtown anglophone practice since many dentistry graduates are leaving the province. He stopped construction on a new house one month before the election. “I’m glad. I would be in a straitjacket now,” he says. In the past month he has lost 25 patients who have either been transferred or decided to leave.
Peter Mackechnie, a 36-year-old stock analyst, recently sold his house for $23,000 less than the asking price of $95,000. The bid was the only one he got in seven months. “I’m leaving mainly because of the kids and the recognition that it doesn’t help to be bilingual, that you have to be francophone.”
Perhaps the most skittish and emotional of the minority groups is the 113,000strong Montreal Jewish community, many of them Eastern Europeans who survived the Second World War. Some, like AÍ Lupovici, owner of a small food packaging firm, arrived broke and built a thriving family business. Their fear, based mostly on unclear perceptions of the official PQ platform, is that minorities such as themselves will be discriminated against by the new Quebec government. Lupovici, a former Romanian who spent four years in a concentration camp says, “With this situation I feel cheated. I came to a country from coast to coast. Now I feel they are forcefully fencing me in.” His brother Dave moved his firm to Florida last December.
For those who have already left, there is
a sense of relief that the decision has finally been taken. Thirty-four-year-old law graduate Julian Keller, who moved to Toronto last summer, estimates that about 35 of the 45 students in his McGill -University class are there, too. “When I visit Montreal, people say, ‘I’ll be there soon.’ ”
Charlie Blagden also saw the “writing on the wall” last summer, so he, his wife and two kids moved to Lyn, Ontario. In January, they left Chambly, where they had lived for 13 years, losing $7,000 on their home. A plant manager with a stainless steel fabrication industry, Blagden gave up a middle-income salary to work as a salesman on commission. Back in Chambly, his neighbors have sold their homes and moved into apartments while waiting for their companies to transfer them.
David and Carol Appel are one couple who decided to stay. They love living in Montreal and speaking French. A lawyer and father of two, Appel summed up their reasons: “If no one is left to fight for federalism, we’ll lose by default.” Nevertheless they rent a coachhouse and wouldn’t dream of buying under present conditions. Appel, who started his law practice 10 years ago, sees apprehension among his clients. Litigation has zoomed as people tidy up legal loose ends. Creditors are cracking down on loans. Small commercial lenders are divesting themselves of long-term loans. Appel’s wife, Carol, says the election came as a blow. “We realize we have to question our whole existence here, our culture, what we are willing to put up with or live with.” Adds David: “Those who are not French wonder what they will lose.”
The actual extent of the money flowing out of Quebec is impossible to estimate. Says Joshua Mendelsohn, associate economist at the C.D. Howe Institute: “Short of giving every analyst in town truth serum ... there is no factual way of knowing.” On one level there are the “nervous Nellies” who moved their bank accounts, jewelry, paintings, securities, stocks and bonds. This also happened after the 1970 October Crisis. “But this time,” warns investment counselor Ronald Meade, “the assets won’t come back. You can’t cry wolf three times and expect people to forgive you.” Much more serious for Quebec is that capital investment within the province is at a standstill, expansion is deferred, extra money shipped elsewhere. Quebeckers have cashed in more than $70 million worth of Quebec bonds since the election. Stocks of Quebec companies, or com-
panies perceived as having their base in Quebec, have become “uninviting,” as one stock analyst put it. A study by the management consulting firm of Currie Coopers and Lybrand Ltd. of 53 top business and government people found that most expected “very slow” growth in the next two years. “As long as conditions are unsettled we can expect new investment to be restricted and capital to flow out. The move of head offices and unilingual anglophones will continue.”
As Montreal’s decline as a financial centre continues (according to PQ Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau: “All we’ve got left already is just a lot of shells”), it is the small, Quebec-based companies that are much more nervous than the multinationals. Says investment counselor Stephen Jarislowsky: “Multinationals can stand the shock much better than the ones who have lived here all their lives and have built their assets here.” And there is a feeling among the heads of large corporations that the PQ would not be “so myopic” as to drive them out. Says Bill Turner, president of Consolidated-Bathurst Limited: “They need us more than we need them.” However, they could be pushed to leave if English is removed as the principal language of work in a head office. Jean de Grandpré, chairman of the board of Bell Canada says: “To deny this self-evident economic fact is to doom Montreal to a more or less lingering sclerosis.”
One of the few companies to admit openly it is leaving because of language restrictions is Combustion Engineering-Superheater Ltd. (a wholly owned subsidiary of an American company, Combustion Engineering, Inc.) makers of steam generating equipment for thermal power stations. Although it has been in Quebec since 1920, the company announced last January it was moving 280 workers in its Montreal main office to Ottawa this summer. John Braden, vice-president and secretary, says that the company has traditionally relied for engineers and technologists on Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, as well as Canada. Since 1970, the company has had increasing difficulty getting these people to come to Quebec. Says Braden: “People won’t come here. Why should they? Why come to the province where it is the most difficult to adapt?” The company has already lost a number of engineers, and others are staying on only because of the company’s planned move. With $100 million worth of sales last year, almost all of them outside Quebec, the main office does most of its work in English. The technology and designs are in English. “The business language in this office has to be English,” concludes Braden.
Few Quebec businessmen question that Quebec’s economy will survive the departure of Anglos and the current outflow of capital. The big question is simply: at what price? Almost everyone expects a drop in the standard of living. “There will be a hel-
luva hard time ahead before we settle down,” said an analyst with the brokerage firm of Lafiferty, Hardwood & Partners Ltd. Says Jarislowsky: “In 20 years time they will kill off French Canada. This will be a backwater.”
But, says economist Mendelsohn: “It depends on the pace. If everybody gets up and leaves in the next two years, then you will get a shortage of professionals. But nothing becomes drastic if you take longer
to do it.” On the positive side, French-Canadian businessmen, long denied access to the oak-lined upper echelons of business, have a new vigor. “It’s the first time I don’t have an inferiority complex,” said one. Large corporations, with heavy assets in Quebec, will stay as long as they can make money. Certainly the retreat of the Anglos is not new. Anglo communities outside Montreal have diminished considerably. And the Parti Québécois is prepared to
lose a certain percentage of the minorities and business. Says Landry: “It is a price we have been paying for several years, since before the Parti Québécois was founded.” The PQ program does call for protection of minority rights: “Once the anglophones have understood that, I think any tangible exodus—if in fact there is one—will tend to slow down.”
Something very important has come home to Emerson Hughes. He grew up in
the English bastion of Montreal and took it for granted that the French would speak English to him. Now, because his French is not as fluent as his English, he feels insecure, uncomfortable, and understands how French Quebeckers have felt for generations. “Quebeckers have not only had that in their own home, but all over the country.” Now at least, Quebeckers may not be well off economically but they can be their own masters. The shock for the Anglo, is that he never expected to lose his position. “We were never brought up to cope with this kind of upheaval. We are the Eastern Europeans of our day. We have to pack our bags and start all over again.”
ANGELA FERRANTE/ELAINE DEWAR WITH CORRESPONDENT REPORTS