English speakers face obstacles to employment, report finds

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

While the stereotypical image of English-speaking Quebecers as a disproportionately privileged group of urban elites persists in some circles, a recent report by the Provincial Employment Roundtable (PERT) on employment and official language use suggests that English speakers are at a disadvantage when looking for work in the province.

PERT is an independent organization founded in 2018, supported by the Sécrétariat aux rélations avec les québécois d’expression anglaise and the Montreal-based youth employment and entrepreneurship nonprofit YES.

The report found that in 14 of the province’s 17 regions – all except Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Mauricie and Chaudière-Appalaches – the per-capita income of English speakers is lower than that of French speakers. In 15 of 17 regions – all except Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and Bas-Saint-Laurent – English speakers have a higher unemployment rate.

In the Eastern Townships, women and young people in the English-speaking community experience higher unemployment than their older male counterparts – the unemployment rate for workers under 25 is three times as high as for workers 45-64.

The report is largely based on data from 2015-2016 – before Brome-Missisquoi and Haute-Yamaska became part of the Estrie region and before the pandemic led to a provincewide labour shortage and a boom in remote work opportunities.

Maggie Severs is the acting executive director of Townshippers. For her, the PERT report “is evidence that the socioeconomic status of the English-speaking community has absolutely declined over the last couple of decades.” She notes that highly educated, bilingual workers are often drawn to jobs outside the province which pay more, and where bilingualism is considered a greater asset, while younger workers without French-language proficiency often have trouble finding entry-level jobs.

Severs is concerned that certain provisions in Bill 96 could make it even more difficult for English speakers to navigate the job market. The bill would make it illegal for employers to require bilingual candidates without specific justification, taking away the idea of bilingualism or English proficiency as an asset, and place additional restrictions on the language of work. “Not only do you need to communicate with the public and with your clientele in French, but all internal communications must be in French as well,” Severs explains. “If there are two English speaking colleagues in the same office and they exchange an email in English and somebody sees this and places a complaint, then there could be repercussions. There could be fines for this. So that’s really tricky on employers as well. The fact that the use of language in the workplace is becoming much more strict is something that could affect the employment of English speakers.”

She does find one aspect of the bill encouraging – the idea of French language training as a right for all Quebecers. A previous PERT report found that language training “continues to be the greatest barrier to an English-speakers ability to find and maintain [employment] and advance within the Quebec workforce.”

“Traditionally, if you were born and raised in Quebec, you weren’t eligible for [government-subsidized French] courses, but just because you were born and raised here doesn’t mean that you came out of school proficient in French,” she says. “Making language courses more accessible will support language development.”

Severs says she would like to see more educational opportunities, including mentorships and internships, for English-speaking job seekers. Townshippers provides a job bank and a list of educational and job training resources on its website, and runs a business coaching program for aspiring anglophone entrepreneurs in partnership with YES, as well as a health and social services mentorship program that is “in the process of being opened up to other milieus.”

“There are other things that the [provincial] government could do, but in the current political climate, I don’t think they would be interested,” she says.

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