The shoe, whether it fits or not, is on the other foot

David Thomas October 8 1979

The shoe, whether it fits or not, is on the other foot

David Thomas October 8 1979

The shoe, whether it fits or not, is on the other foot


David Thomas

A soft fusillade of bubbles emanates from a hidden gun, effervescing in the delicious autumn light over Place Jacques Cartier. Cameras sweep the scene for one of a rash of movies being produced in Montreal with the backward-bending co-operation of municipal officials. So eager is the city’s new image-building development com-

mission for the attention of moviemakers that it has authorized the erection later this year of a film-set replica of Moscow’s Kremlin, just across the square from Mayor Jean Drapeau’s city hall. Meanwhile, under the bubbles, couples clink noon-hour aperitifs at the outdoor cafés ringing the cobbled square as lawyers and judges leaving the nearby courthouse step crisply across the paths of horse-drawn calèches. This is the heart of the other, happier Montreal whose Old World aura is authentic down to the swarms of American tourists who make English compete with French as the goodweather vernacular.

But by winter, English will rarely be heard in the bars and restaurants of Place Jacques Cartier: few Montreal anglophones seek their pleasure here. Many probably couldn’t find it without a tourist guide.

Indisputably, there are two Montreals. Though the cleavage is as clean as ever after 200 years of cohabitation,

Montreal is changing dramatically as it digests two concurrent phenomena: a sudden tipping of the balance of power between English and French and an acceptance that the city’s age of adolescent growth is past. Perception of, and reaction to, the changes are, of course, different, depending on whether the beholder is a Montrealer or a Montréalais. Whether he is on the losing or the winning side.

Taking stock of Montreal, the morosity of its English community, the relative confidence of its French majority and the muteness of the city’s once-pugnacious Italian and Greek neighborhoods make the Parti Québécois scheme for a separate Quebec seem almost anachronistic. The grievances of French-speaking Quebeckers are hardly visible. Now, the sense of restricted opportunity and linguistic discrimination is felt by the English—a fact many Quebec nationalists refuse to acknowledge because it saps the logic and justice of their cause.

More than 100 English-speaking firms have moved operations from Montreal since 1976,* a trend that began well before the Parti Québécois attained power but which has accelerated since. Thousands of highly paid managers and professionals have quit mansions in Westmount and bungalows in lesser neighborhoods, depriving English Montreal of economic and social leadership.

Montreal’s double trauma—the exodus of its English elite and a general decline in economic growth—was vividly expressed earlier this year by the C. D. Howe Research Institute, which said the loss of head offices will turn Montreal into “a big Milwaukee.” Treating the decline as inevitable, the institute said: “As Montreal loses its national services and becomes a more regional city, it will become increasingly French. Its French-speaking inhabitants will assume the important posts in a city whose role is diminishing and will therefore feel the changing role of Montreal less keenly than will its English-speaking inhabitants.”

As the English relinquish their economic hegemony to the French, leaders are emerging from within each community to promote their visions of Montreal’s uncertain hereafter. Assuring the survival of an autonomous Englishspeaking minority is the mission of Liberal Reed Scowen, a handsome, redheaded, 48-year-old businessman who was executive director of the Pepin-Robarts national unity task force before he coasted into the Quebec National Assembly in a byelection called to replace Bryce Mackasey, who quit after a brief attempt to puff himself up as the champion of English Quebec. In Scowen, English Montrealers have found a more controlled but still forceful voice which has earned the praise even of Parti Québécois opponents.

Scowen’s cooler manner certainly carries more weight with his leader, Claude Ryan, who has agreed to create a

*There were 607,505 anglophones in metropolitan Montreal as of the 1976 census, and 1,831,110 francophones. The English represented 21.6 per cent of the total population of2,802,1*85.

special party committee which will define a place for English and the people who speak it in post-PQ Montreal. Scowen has made the flight of Englishspeaking business from Montreal the focus of his attempt to reveal the true situation of anglophones. Many such Montrealers cherish distorted perceptions of their own power and tend not to blame the very persons who threaten their existence: the English-speaking business leaders pulling out of the city.

“There’s a feeling that this is a way to get even not only with Lévesque but with the French attitude of self-assertion,” reports Scowen. “They are so taken with this idea that they haven’t begun to have a bad reaction against the people who are making the decisions.”

Scowen systematically checks rumors of company moves and has compiled the best available body count: since 1976, 114 firms have moved 9,022 positions out of Quebec. Some, such as Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, retreat with all guns blazing against language legislation and the Parti Québécois—to the PQ’s gain.

Other companies slip out stealthily under cover of silence. The biggest is the Bank of Montreal, quietly shuffling off to its First Canadian Place in Toronto. Scowen paid a call on bank Chairman Fred McNeil who, Scowen recalls, said: “I’m not going to tell you anything.” So Scowen organized a secret network of information snatchers in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal: “At 10 o’clock the same morning, we made a dozen calls to people we know in the bank. In the course of one day we got a lot of information.” The Bank of Montreal has shifted 1,250 jobs out of Montreal since the start of 1976, according to Scowen.

Though Scowen criticizes the firms for leaving without waiting for the results of the referendum and subsequent election, he agrees that Englishspeaking professionals and business have sound reasons for feeling bridled by Quebec language legislation: “Law 101 is a restrictive trade practice—it eliminates a certain amount of competition. The government is favoring French-speaking companies and many businesses are doing the same—they’re francizing their operations not only by requiring the ability to speak French for certain jobs but by giving business to French-Canadian subcontractors and suppliers.”

Not surprisingly, then, the city’s French-speaking business leadership is less pessimistic than the anglophones they are supplanting. Most, nonetheless, are concerned by the flight of English-speaking business activity from Montreal, and the Parti Québécois has no more friends in the French-speaking Chambre de Commerce than in the anglophone Board of Trade.

Pierre Schooner is a former Chambre de Commerce general manager and now Montreal’s newly appointed official booster. The 44-year-old Schooner leads a special committee of city officials and business leaders, nearly all of them French-speaking, who are imitating New York’s campaign to reverse the exodus of head offices from that U.S. metropolis. Like Scowen, Schooner exhorts fidgety businessmen to treat the PQ and its language legislation as a passing aberration: “Those who leave Montreal are leaving because of temporary phenomena which can be changed from one day to the next by democracy, by an election.”

Schooner and Scowen diverge in their notions of how to handle the city’s cultural separation. Scowen wants English Montreal to remain “a distinct society” with each group “living like the vast majority of people anywhere in the world—in one language, really not too concerned by constitutional squabbles, not threatened too much by the other group.” The link between the two would be a bilingual elite: “100,000 people forming a society that will inform public opinion, that will interpret the two groups to each other.”

But for Schooner, it is the very isolation Scowen wants to maintain that explains the unhappiness of Montreal’s anglophones: “The English-speaking population never knew Montreal very well. It has always lived in a very clearly delineated area and rarely left it.” And that, he says, is the reason why other English North Americans, whose natural contacts are with the city’s English speakers, suffer the impression that all of Montreal is economically depressed.

Montreal, after two centuries, has yet to come to terms with its duality. Leaders such as Pierre Laurin, respected director of the Université de Montréal’s business school, believe that this “interface of two well-structured and dynamic language groups” should be exploited as an asset to international business activity. But, he laments: “By our bickering and failure to frequent each other, this potential wealth has almost become a handicap.”

So, though winners and losers have switched roles, the two Montreals continue to evolve apart, in different directions, oblivious to the joys and woes of the other. ^