With only a limited knowledge of French needed to thrive as a student in Montreal, it’s unsurprising that most anglophone university graduates enter the labourforce without a working knowledge of Quebec’s official language. For anglophone students looking to start a career in Montreal, Quebec’s bilingualism laws restrict employment options, and recent graduates often end up leaving the city to seek other opportunities. Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon the ‘brain drain,’ and have studied how the exodus of post-graduate degree holders has caused the city to miss out on the valuable skills of English-speaking students. The disconnect between English universities and the French workforce not only hinders the city’s prosperity, but also disadvantages anglophone graduates who want to continue calling Montreal home.
In 2018, Montreal experienced a net population decrease of over 20,000—the city’s largest in a decade. Despite having over 170,000 students at 11 universities, only 32 per cent of Montrealers aged 25 to 64 hold a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification, one of the lowest ratios of all major North American cities. Last May, McGill partnered with the Quebec government to study the anglophone exodus with the aim of finding a sustainable solution. This partnership is a step in the right direction, and it is vital that the city continue to commit itself to a thorough strategy for rectifying the brain drain epidemic.
The linguistic divide between the city’s English universities and its predominantly French labour market can be partly blamed for Montreal’s lack of degree-holding residents. Every year, English universities like McGill and Concordia recruit nationwide and worldwide. Once in Montreal, these students quickly learn that thriving in and around the downtown bubble requires little more than a four-word French vocabulary—je ne comprend pas. This realization, paired with their busy university schedules, means that many students do not have to invest in learning French. Even with an awareness of the French-speaking requirements in Montreal’s job market, students may still rationalize that it makes less sense to learn French when they could work in their mother tongue and save the money and time investments it takes to pick up a new language.
In Quebec, companies seek French-speaking employees to meet the government’s legally-enforced bilingualism standards. Civil service work and jobs at federal institutions both require employees to have French communication skills. Moreover, professionals who speak English and French enjoy significantly larger incomes earn up to 60 per cent more than their unilingual counterparts. No matter how much students may love Montreal, sticking around may not be worth limiting oneself to mostly entry-level jobs. Most graduates crave the fulfilment of excelling in their field of work, and if Montreal does not offer anglophones occupations in their field they will go elsewhere.
Preserving the primacy of the French language underlies Quebec’s dedication to maintaining its heritage; reflexively suggesting the end of Bill 101 is not a workable solution to the brain drain issue. At the same time, the Quebec government is setting the province up for a massive disadvantage by not prioritizing the retention of anglophone students.
One solution to brain drain could be investing in strategies to make French more accessible for busy English-speaking students. Currently, the Quebec government offers a variety of subsidized French courses for recent immigrants. Promoting this kind of opportunity more heavily in the university setting and offering more part-time courses would send the message that the government wants to welcome and assist English-speakers in becoming bilingual. McGill could also incorporate French into freshman requirements or offer more seats in French courses. Investing in free French courses for all students and more French scholarships for anglophones are also valuable ways that the Quebec government could retain degree-holders. In partnership with the Quebec government, employers could contribute to improving this issue by welcoming anglophone staff and offering avenues and incentives for improving French skills over time.