Quebec and Montreal: two languages add to their rivalry. The two cities put different accents on the tricky question of nationalism
Montreal — For Quebec City and Montreal, it has been the best of times and the worst of times. The 81/2-year reign of the Parti Qu'eb'ecois has been a boon to Quebec City and the bureaucratic class that labors there. It is a town whose life centers on the National Assembly on the hill that overlooks ``lower town.'' It is a town where only 5 percent of the population is English-speaking, or Anglophone, as the Canadian language industry likes to put it.
It is isolated from the rest of the world, even in many ways isolated from the rest of the province it governs. It is certainly isolated from Montreal.
Wrapped in a protective cocoon of heavy snow from October to April, Quebec City seems protected from the world; its bureacracts are safe, protected by law, from dealing with anyone in anything but French. On the surface it is a tourist city with a few quaint streets and monuments. Underneath it is a sleepy village, a provincial capital.
Montreal is a big North American city. With 2.8 million people in its metropolitan region, this city is more than five times the size of Quebec City. About two-thirds of Montreal is French-speaking, or Francophone as they say in official circles. But even its English-speaking minority is bigger than all of Quebec City.
Montreal has industry, transportation, a port, two airports, restaurants, theaters, and downtown business core, all the things that make a city hum.
But it is in Quebec City that the decisions are made, even if they are made by Montrealers.
The reign of the Parti Qu'eb'ecois has been a disaster for Montreal. The language, labor, and taxation policies of the separatist party drove business from the province and down the highway to Toronto, which was seen as being less exciting but more stable.
It is estimated that as many as a quarter of a million people have left the province since 1976, almost all of them from the English-language community. A shrinking population closed one of the city's two English dailies, the Montreal Star, in 1979. Banks moved their trading departments to Toronto; brokerage houses moved staff from Quebec; real estate prices slumped.
One of the few companies to announce why it was leaving was the Sun Life Insurance Company. It said quite simply it couldn't live with the language laws. So a company that had been founded and grew in Montreal went to Toronto. It left behind an office building that was once the highest in the British Empire.
Maybe it was those references to empire that were the problem 20 or 30 years ago. As recently as 10 years ago, many French-speaking Canadians were having trouble making it in the business world, even though Montreal was becoming increasingly French.
``I remember 10 years ago having to fire a very capable man because his English wasn't good enough. It was company policy,'' says an advertising executive who still lives in Montreal. ``I told him why he was being fired, so imagine the bitterness he carried around.''
Today the French-speaking executive would be in demand, and he would be given time to polish his English. But more and more work can be done in French because the client is French.
In Montreal business has become the fashionable profession for French-speaking Quebeckers. This new business class does not have the prejudices of 15 years ago; it is looking for money and opportunity, not confrontation.
But there is a sense that today's successful Quebecker has a lot for which to thank the nationalists. ``There's no doubt the language law righted a lot wrongs, and I hate to admit it,'' says the English-speaking adman. ``But I hope we can put all that behind us.''
Quebec City with its homogeneous French population and its solid base of government jobs has reason to be peaceful. There was little conflict here. If you spoke English to someone here in the heady nationalistic days of the 1960s and '70s, they just shrugged their shoulders, not to score a political point but because they didn't understand the language.
Montreal with its ethnic soup of French, Irish, Scots, English, Greeks, Italians, and countless other groups was the center of nationalism, as it had been for 100 years. The immigrants almost all turned to English, ignoring French. ``My parents came to North America; they knew the language was English, so I learned English, not French,'' said the son of Slovak immigrants who came to Montreal in the 1940s.
French Canadians imagined they were going to disappear in an Anglo sea. Starting in the late '60s the Quebec legislature passed a series of laws that dealt with language: They determined who could be educated in which language, then the language of work -- sparked by a strike at a General Motors plant where French-speaking workers had to read English manuals and listen to foremen in English -- and then the language of everything.
In Quebec language has always been at the heart of politics. And the politics of language has always been centered in Montreal. That is where French Quebeckers come face to face with the foreign face of English, whether the ``Anglais'' is wearing a tweed jacket or selling bagels. Anyone not French is classified as an Anglais, or Englishman.
``Montreal is the only place where you see this,'' says Lysianne Gagnon, a columnist with La Presse, the largest circulation French-language daily outside France. ``In the countryside it is totally French, with some exceptions.''
One of those exceptions is the Eastern Townships. The English-language enclave hugs the border with New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Many of the early settlers were United Empire Loyalists who didn't agree with the aims of the American Revolution.
In 1850, 64 percent of the townships' population was English-speaking; now only 9 or 10 percent is. ``If current trends continue, certainly in another generation or two there will be no one left,'' said Marjorie Goodfellow, president of the 8,000-member Townshippers' Association.
That has been the story of the English-speaking people throughout the province of Quebec. They have left in droves over the past 15 years, particularly since the election of the separatist government in 1976.
The remaining English-speakers in Quebec are not so hard line, meaning they don't get so defensive about their rights. Many send their children to schools with French immersion. By law French-speaking Quebeckers are not taught English until Grade 5.
``My sister is desperate because her son doesn't know English. So she's going to send him to camp,'' says a Montrealer who learned English before the rules were changed.
The irony of the rules is that it is the English-speaking Montrealers who will continue to dominate business life in the province because they are the ones who can talk to the rest of English-speaking North America.
``You can crunch numbers in English or French, but you have to sell in English if you want to sell outside this province,'' says a bilingual Montreal businessman.