Fifty years ago, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (RCBB) concluded that dissatisfaction with Canada on the part of the country’s Francophones was in large part attributable to what they perceived to be their inferior economic position.
Rather than knowledge of French and English being an advantage, bilingual francophones frequently complained of discrimination in the workplace on the basis of their ethnic origin. Studies undertaken by the RCBB confirmed that the income of francophones was well below the average for the Canadian population. The Commission also noted the relatively low rates of participation of Francophones in the upper levels of the federal public service and in private industry and the restricted use of French in these institutions. The RCBB was determined to attack the sources of these inequities.
The 2011 National Household Survey reveals that in the nation’s capital, there is virtually no difference between the average income of francophones and anglophones. Indeed, on the basis of median income, Ottawa francophones enjoy a 10-per-cent advantage. Evidence that bilingualism in the federal civil service is now an advantage is seen in the numerous complaints issued by unilingual anglophones about discrimination in federal hiring and promotion. Today, French is the first language of some 22 per cent of Canada’s population while 29 per cent of federal employees are francophone, including 32 per cent of management-level jobs
It is not always easy to acknowledge progress. During the 1960’s, the appointment of a unilingual anglophone to the position of auditor-general would have hardly raised an eyebrow. Today, the naming of English-only speaker Michael Ferguson as the country’s auditor-general became an important source of national controversy. The move rendered unlikely a future high-level federal appointee that was not bilingual.
In 1960, French-origin males in Quebec earned approximately half that of their British-origin counterparts. An urgent priority for then-Quebec premier Jean Lesage was improvement in the economic condition of the province’s francophones. The rapid expansion of Quebec’s government during that decade’s Quiet Revolution saw the introduction of several measures targeting francophone economic advancement. According to respected Quebec economist Pierre Fortin that goal has been achieved. By 2000, earnings of Quebec francophones were equal to or greater than earnings of anglophones of the same gender, language skills, level of education, number of years of experience and number of weeks worked.
Quebec’s history is replete with references to the economic exploitation of French Canadians by “les Anglais.” Some 50 years after Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, the notion that English Quebecers continue to dominate much of the Quebec economy still resonates with many Quebec francophones. An example of such thinking is to be found on the sensational front cover of the March, 2012, edition of the Quebec magazine L’Actualite with such captions as “Ici on parle English”… “Montréal français? It’s over!” – “Des unilingues anglais comme patrons? Get used to it!”. The reference to “unilingual Anglophone bosses” is a not-so-subtle reminder of the presumed influence that Quebec Anglophones continue to exert in the Quebec economy.
In Quebec, income parity has been all but attained between francophones and anglophones. The 2011 NHS reveals that while anglophone Quebecers have a higher average income than the province’s francophones, their median income is 10 per cent lower. And both the average and median income for Quebec anglophones is 10 per cent below the national average for English Canada. Underlying the median income numbers one finds that in 2011 more than 18 per cent of Quebec anglophones reported living below the low-income threshold compared with 15 per cent of francophones. The figure on low income is the worst among all provincial anglophone populations.
Yet for many Quebec opinion leaders the findings on income are likely far too counterintuitive to merit the attention of provincial policy makers. Some still believe that there is anglophone elite in Quebec ready and willing to impede francophone progress. Surely that now-mythical ‘elite’ is not operating within the provincial government, where despite constituting 8 per cent of Quebec’s population, anglophones represents 1 per cent of civil service employees. Fifty years after the Quiet Revolution, rather than focusing on divisive legislation about the province’s values, the Quebec government would be much better served in promoting an economic vision that crosses linguistic and ethnic lines. Regrettably that does not seem to be the current government’s priority.
Jack Jedwab is Executive VP of the Canadian Institute of Identities and Migration and the Association for Canadian Studies