Montreal English-French Tensions

By: Slava Borisov | In: Montreal | Posted

Intro: Let me preface by saying that this is kind of a sensitive topic, and any article not written in an insipid academic tone is likely to be controversial. The post below should be read strictly as an opinion piece: my perspective is based on the years that I spent living in Montreal, studying there, talking about these issues with the locals, and reading the popular (non-academic) press. Technically an "allophone," I don't have a huge horse in this particular race and I hope this circumstance affords me a certain degree of impartiality in the eyes of the reader.


Tensions between Canada's two official languages in the country's second most important city have a long and, as they say, storied history: their start can be traced all the way back to the early 1760s, when Montreal was not just the most important city – it was almost the only city of any consequence in what was later to become Canada. Montreal surrendered to British troops in 1760 and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) made the British takeover permanent. To be sure, back in those days it was not only about language: at least initially, self-identification was mostly along religious (Catholic vs Protestant) and cultural (British vs French) lines. Nevertheless, language has remained a clear marker of identity while other factors gradually lost their importance, particularly starting in the 20th century (Catholic Italians, for example, mostly identified with Montreal's English speakers).

For about 200 years after the Treaty of Paris, until the 1960s, French dominated in purely demographic terms, i.e. in the number of speakers (the only exception to this was a brief period in the early 20th century when, thanks to a wave of Irish newcomers, anglophones on the island outnumbered francophones), while English was perceived as the "prestige" language, used by the city's economic elites.

After the "Quiet Revolution" (Révolution tranquille) of the 1960s and 1970s, changes in linguistic laws (see the Wikipedia link below on Bill 101) and the ensuing exodus of English speakers toward other provinces, French has cemented its position of primacy in all fields of public and life. Nevertheless, the tensions continued.

Many of Montreal's anglos I've talked to told me that the late 1980s and much of the 1990s were the probably lowest point in the relationship between the English- and French-speaking communities. It seemed that everyone in the city was either a "frog" (a derogatory nickname for French speakers) or a "square" (its equivalent for English speakers); "squares" were occasionally seen driving westward in a moving van. This was also the period when the second failed referendum on Quebec's succession from Canada was conducted, and the pre- and post-referendum polemics did not exactly help defuse the tensions.

Afterwards, however, the relationship between the city's "two solitudes" started to slowly improve (though whether or not this trend proves to be enduring is another matter). This improvement can probably be attributed to many factors, but three come to mind immediately.

1. D'accord… we'll learn French

One mitigating factor that over time helped lower the mistrust and tensions was the general willingness of most anglophones, especially those born after the "Quiet Revolution," to not only learn French but use it in their public life… if not necessarily at home.

2. Dwindling numbers, greying hair

Secondly, by the end of the 20th century most English "hard liners" (who were typically monolingual) had either moved (stereotypically, to Toronto) or simply died of old age. Their children and grand-children, if they stayed, learned French, and were rarely quite as combative on linguistic issues as members of the previous generation.

3. The national magic trick: Diversity!

A third factor at play was the massive influx of immigrants Quebec started to experience. Almost all of the new arrivals settle in Montreal (though, it must be added, not all of those who settle stay in the city). Since the early 2000s, the number of newcomers from foreign lands has been holding steady at about 1,000 new residents per week. While immigrant children, of quite mixed ethnic backgrounds, are usually educated in French-language schools and thus become fluent French speakers, they are also typically bilingual (and very often, trilingual) and rarely militantly anti-English (or anti-French for that matter).

Where we are today

More than 250 years after the Treaty of Paris was signed, the fire of linguistic conflict has not been completely extinguished, but its intensity has been greatly reduced. Nowadays, the conflict itself has been reformulated and reformatted more as an opposition of the proponents of bilingualism (as in French and English) and unilingualism / monolingualism (that is, French only) in education, government services, and, to some extent, commercial and administrative life. Nobody is seriously arguing in favor of English monolingualism: that option – if it ever has been an option – is certainly off the table now.

Occasionally, one can hear mutual accusations of language-based job discrimination, with Quebecois francophones objecting to fluent English being required for some jobs (and fuming that French is sometimes not required) and anglophones raised outside Quebec complaining of post-interview rejections based on their "level of French," or, in the case of foreign-born applicants (including those from French-speaking countries), a "lack of Canadian experience." Fairly or not, such snubs may get interpreted as rejections based on the applicant's linguistic or national origin rather than as true assessments of their abilities to communicate with colleagues and clients.

It's worth mentioning that large companies (those with 50 or more employees) are obligated to use French as their main work language and middle managers (i.e. those interviewing new hires) are typically francophone. Smaller companies can (and often do) use English as their work language, although the Parti Québecois has been trying to extend Bill 101's workplace language requirements to all but the smallest businesses.

Fear Not

With all that said, a visitor to the city is NOT likely to become aware of these tensions still bubbling under the surface and even less likely to encounter any bad attitude, no matter what language they prefer. Most Montrealers, regardless of what their own preferred language is, will expertly assess a whole variety of sociolinguistic clues to detect and, if necessary, switch to the language that they perceive as the strongest of their interlocutor (e.g., a customer in a store). A bilingual greeting "Bonjour/Hi!" (sometimes replaced with a word that sounds exactly half-way between "Âllo!" and "Hello!") is pretty much standard in commercial establishments, particularly in the city's center (though less so in the east, where the menu of options usually stops at Bonjour!). The expectation is that the first sound coming out of your mouth will probably betray your linguistic preference. From that moment on, the interaction is likely to continue in that language.

Wikipedia Links

Press Articles