Half a million English-speaking Quebecers have left the province in the last four decades. Some blame Bill 101, others claim political uncertainty and social inequality pushed people out. Less than one week after Quebec’s premier invited those in exile to come home, Global News meets three English-speaking Montrealers who left only to find out that moving back is easier said than done.
“I did regret leaving Quebec I mean I love Quebec I was influenced by the cinema the culture I loved growing up there,” filmmaker John Walker said. “So I always you know questioned should I move back should I go back?”
Walker still dreams about moving back to Quebec, nearly five decades after he first left. Most of his family followed him to Ontario, except for his sister who still lives in Montreal. He has come back over the years, notably to bury his parents. And just last year, he made a documentary film about finally coming to terms with his complicated relationship with Quebec.
“This really was a film that I need to make, this story of the impact on anglophones,” Walker said. “Many of my friends said we left with our tail between our legs we didn’t really understand why we were leaving. It was very emotional and we buried it.”
Walker was part of the first wave of the English-speaking exodus. They may no longer be leaving en masse, but Quebecers continue to flee the province often over the lack of employment opportunities. Still, there’s hope for the future according to some.
“There are signs that there are slight increases in the numbers of English speakers here in Quebec so there are some signs for optimism,” coordinator of the Quebec English-Speaking Communities Research Network (QUESCREN) Lorraine O’Donnell said.
After two decades away, Jessie Laflamme and her family took the leap and moved back to Montreal from Toronto after spending close to two decades away. The biggest hurdles were learning the French language for her husband and getting the English eligibility certificate for her son. But the goal was to get closer to family.
“It was basically wanting to be closer to my mom and my dad who both live here, after my son was born we really missed the contact with them,” Laflamme said. “We also wanted the help, free babysitting!”
Laflamme and her husband recently bought a house in Montreal, one they could never afford had they stayed in Toronto. And despite a drop in salary, they haven’t looked back.
“I don’t have any regrets even though it’s very hard for me to learn French,” said Marcos Herrera. “I’m still learning, it is really difficult.”
Former Montrealer Marianne Wisenthal is also tortured at times by the fact that many of her family members and friends are still in la belle province.
While she would love to come back, her husband doesn’t speak French. Her daughter, on the other hand, is learning.
“I really want her to grow up speaking French like I did as a second language,” Wisenthal said. “I’m not sure it’s going to be quite as easy as it was in Montreal.”
What would it take for her to come back? Good jobs for both her and her husband. “Everything else we already have in place there, we have lots of friends and family,” Wisenthal said. But she doesn’t see it happening in the near future. “We’re pretty happy in Toronto, I don’t really see us coming back to Montreal at any time.”
While experts are optimistic, the tables have turned for Quebec’s two solitudes. Inequalities that once plagued the francophone community are shifting, leaving English-speaking Quebecers with higher unemployment rates and lower incomes.
But ironically, Quebec’s unique culture is actually helping the English-speaking community to grow.
“The nice thing about Montreal, we have a disproportionately high number of English-speaking artists and creative people here so those people are coming already so that’s excellent,” O’Donnell said.
Language and the lack of opportunity may stop some from coming back, but others refuse to let go of the dream of returning home someday and reuniting with what’s left of their families.
“It’s always on the agenda,” Walker said from his home in Halifax. “Never say never.”