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Lysiane Gagnon
Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon

In Quebec, old myths about income die hard Add to ...

In the late sixties, when I was a young reporter, I was handed a rare scoop that became one of the biggest of my career. The heavy file contained research done for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism that documented the economic inferiority of French Canadians.

The results were so explosive that some people inside the Laurendeau-Dunton commission feared that they would not be published. (They were eventually, when the full report of the commission came out.) The series of articles I wrote on these documents made the headlines of La Presse over several days and it provoked, as was to be expected, a great deal of public outrage.

The most explosive finding was that the gap between the average incomes of francophones and anglophones - a gap that existed throughout Canada - was especially large in Quebec. Moreover, even bilingual and highly educated francophones had much lower incomes than unilingual anglophones with the same level of education. This proved that French-speaking Quebeckers were victims of systemic discrimination at the hands of the anglophone elite, which then controlled much of the economy.

How things change! During the following years, the position of the two groups has been radically reversed. Nowadays in Quebec, as the 2006 census showed, it is the anglophones who make less money than the francophones, to the tune of about $2,000 a year on average.

Even in the plush Montreal suburb of Westmount, which is still seen as the traditional enclave of the old English upper class, the median income of francophone residents is 23 per cent higher than that of their "anglo" neighbours. "So much for the legendary Westmount Rhodesians!" Gazette columnist Henry Aubin quipped.

Still, the old grievances are so deep that a huge majority of francophones still believe that the anglos are much richer than they are. According to a poll done last week by Léger Marketing, 39 per cent of francophones believe anglophones are the province's top earners. Only 0.5 per cent of respondents realize that francophones now enjoy higher incomes than anglophones.

"Old myths die hard," says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, the organization that sponsored the survey. Christian Bourque of Léger Marketing says, "The image of the English boss maintains a powerful hold on the popular imagination."

One reason for the disparity is that French speakers are more inclined than anglophones to get college-level training that leads to well-paid skilled trades. But there are other factors at play, obviously, the major one being that a full mastery of French is required in many jobs, especially in the public service, where the salaries are good and the work force almost totally francophone. Although most young Quebec anglophones are functionally bilingual, their writing skills may not be sufficient for the most remunerative posts of public administration. At the powerful Caisse de dépôts et placements du Québec, for instance, it's rare to hear of a native English-speaker holding a managerial position, apart from Caisse president Michael Sabia.

Are Quebec's anglos discriminated against, just like the French educated class was in the sixties? Maybe. But as far as I know, nobody in the Montreal anglophone community raised this possibility as an explanation for the disparity in income between the two groups, so I'm left with a question mark.

Another reason behind the economic gap is that what is called the anglophone community has changed a great deal since the sixties. Many, among the "old money" community of British descent and the thriving community of Ashkenazi Jews, have left for Toronto, to be replaced by more recent immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds whose native or adopted language is English. And some of the most enterprising immigrants tend to leave Quebec for Ontario or the West. From 2001 to 2006, more anglophones left Quebec than arrived from other provinces, mostly Ontario, resulting in a net loss of 1.4 per cent.

What is sure is that the fact that such a large majority of francophones still harbour the old, outdated stereotypes about les Anglais is yet another sign there is a great deal to be done to bring the two groups together.

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