Once vibrant English communities in the Townships, the Gaspé and the Quebec City regions are declining in population.
Today, 80 per cent of English Quebecers live in the Montreal area, begging the question: are English-speakers disappearing from Quebec’s regions?
At the height of production in the 1980’s, the city was a thriving bilingual community.
“Forty years ago, it was a really booming industry with the mining, the asbestos mining industry,” said Suzanne Aubre, executive director of the Megantic English-Speaking Community Development Corporation (MCDC) in Thetford Mines.
“The PQ [Parti Québécois] being elected in ’76 and the referendum in ’80, it had a huge impact on the population here.”
She added most of the organizations that provided English-language services and community activities no longer exist.
Churches, once the centre of English life, have been closed or sold; the former United Church, for example, has been renovated into a private residence.
The last mine closed in 2012, but the industry started suffering long before with the discovery of asbestos-related health concerns.
Since then, many anglophones simply moved away from the area, Aubre explained.
The population of English speakers in the Thetford Mines region went from 20,000 at its peak to 1,000 today.
When Peter Whitcomb moved to Thetford Mines in 1973 to serve as principal of the local English school, there were 500 students between the elementary and high schools.
The two schools were combined in 1992, but now there are fewer than half that many students.
“It’s holding, I think. I don’t think they expect any great decline from now on, but who knows?” Whitcomb said.
“The rest of the community has certainly taken quite a dive as far as population.”
“We’re an endangered species.”
No longer thriving?
For English speakers who have stayed in Thetford Mines, Whitcomb says reality is sad.
“It’s a difficult think for many who have lived their whole lives here. In the 1970’s, it was quite a thriving community – the churches were going, not full swing, but they were certainly rather healthy,” he said.
“They had boy scouts, they had a lot of community organizations.”
There is still one English church in the city, but it doesn’t have its own building.
“They have space at a local funeral home,” Whitcomb said.
He explained it’s like a metaphor for a community that, until very recently, felt like it was on its dying legs.
“They had a feeling they were just going to disappear, fade away, get completely assimilated. They were in a palliative care mode, I would say…just waiting to die,” said Aubre.
In June 2017, Premier Philippe Couillard promised English communities in Quebec that he would create a provincial anglophone affairs office for the government to consult on policy.
English communities have been pushing for this for years.
He said he changed his mind after a recent trip to the Gaspé and a visit with English Quebecers in New Carlisle.
“People don’t necessarily know there are English communities along the Gaspé coast,” said anthropologist Mary Richardson.
As Richardson points out, four out of five of English speakers in Quebec live in Greater Montreal.
The other 20 per cent are spread out across the province, particularly in rural and even remote locations.
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“I think people know there are English speakers in the Eastern Townships. They know there are English speakers in Montreal,” she said.
“I think there are so many other English-speaking communities around the province, that people don’t really know that much about.”
Helping the community
While many thought the English community couldn’t survive in Thetford Mines, in the early 2000s a MCDC, a non-profit, threw it a lifeline.
“At the beginning, nobody believed that we would stick around because they were really in that mode of nothing is going to happen anymore,” said Aubre.
“Now we are recognized as the voice of the English community and the advocates on their behalf.”
MCDC runs a community centre with an English-language library that boasts over 1,800 books, but the main priority for MCDC is to help English-speaking residents, particularly seniors, receive health and social services in English.
“A few years ago, someone was in the hospital and they needed to have their leg amputated – I mean we’re talking serious business here,” Aubre said.
“He was under severe sedation, so he couldn’t make the decision for himself. His wife had to sign, but she couldn’t understand the consent form.”
Aubre explained that hospital staff knew they had English consent forms somewhere, but they couldn’t find them.
Since then, MCDC has been working with local hospitals and health centres to translate or serve as interpreters.
“Pre- and post surgery guides don’t exist in English. You’re diagnosed with diabetes? There’s no documentation in English,” Aubre explained.
The percentage of seniors in the English-speaking community in Thetford Mines, like many other English communities, is twice the percentage in the majority French community.
Students move away for post-secondary studies, and few return as English jobs are scarce.
Social worker Annie Stewart was born and raised in Thetford Mines, but explained moving back wasn’t a problem because she speaks both languages.
“that’s why it’s more important for me to say I’m bilingual, because for me it represents my roots.”
Now, forty per cent of Quebecers say they’re bilingual — more than any other province.