We welcome Dairn Alexandre back as a guest blogger this week. Dairn (a pseudonym) works as a teacher in Alberta. He has a Diplôme d’Études Collégiales in Illustration & Design at Dawson College, a Bachelor of Education degree from McGill University, and is currently finishing up a Master of Education degree at Bishop’s University while also continuing to work as an illustrator. Dairn has two paintings on exhibition at the Avmor permanent collection in Montreal; has been a presenter and guest-lecturer at McGill University and at the University of Calgary; and has hosted sessions for Alberta’s Fine Arts Council. He lives with his wife, two kids, and dog.
My wife and I never thought that we would move back to Quebec. For years, we both spoke of leaving Calgary in hypothetical terms. But that was it.
It was only after my wife miscarried a few days before Christmas seven years ago – likely brought on by the stress of working at a high-needs and under-resourced school – that we both started discussing the likelihood of moving back to the province that we were both born and raised in; the place we once called our home.
After giving up our full-time teaching positions in Calgary in June, 2015, we packed up whatever we were unable to sell and headed back east, hoping for a simpler, better life. When we arrived that August, the town that I grew up in seemed somehow strangely foreign to us. So much had changed since we had left over eight years ago that we couldn’t help but feel homesick for a place that no longer existed.
The town’s rich history was on display all around us, but most of it hadn’t aged very well. The old brick Victorian houses, built during the first days of the town’s settlement, had begun to crack and noticeably crumble in places; large flecks of lead paint had fallen from weatherworn buildings, collecting along the cracks in the sidewalk that line the street; many of the storefronts along Main Street had become deserted and unloved while others had been converted to low-income housing; and many of the English-speaking residents, who had been in town for as long as I remember, have finally moved away after years of hardship and oppression that come from being anglophones in the province. For me, Quebec no longer felt like home. It was not the place that I remember from my childhood, nor had it become the town that I wanted to raise my family in.
These days, tourists passing through town must wonder what the people around here do for work. In general, good-paying jobs seem to be harder to come by than they used to be. Fourteen years after the Raleigh Bicycle Company and Roxton Furniture factory shuttered their doors, my hometown seems to have struggled to move on. As two of the town’s largest and longest running businesses, the absence of these pillars within the local economy feels significant and can still be felt. Like a lover who aches for the touch of their long-departed partner, the people in this town seemingly sit and wait for the return of what once made this place feel complete, what made this town feel alive and vibrant, knowing full well that it will never return. And although businesses rarely open in town anymore, when they do, they tend to struggle to stay open. One exception to this appears to be the Tim Horton’s that has recently been built at the end of Main Street between Picken’s Farm Equipment and the local hardware store. It has become a thriving hub for the locals to grab a coffee and hear the town’s gossip. It is also a reminder that the local economy isn’t completely dead.
During my time in Quebec, the effects of my hometown’s economic downturn can be seen most clearly in the local English elementary school situated across the street from where I grew up. Although the enrolment has fluctuated over the years, it currently has just over 150 students that still attend. However, if the school’s enrolment trends downward again like it has in the past, the elementary school will likely face what other Eastern Township School Board (ETSB) schools have had to do in the last few years: surplus excess teaching staff. Although this usually affects the younger, less established contract teachers within the board first, many of the more seasoned, tenured staff can also become frustrated with trying to do more with less year after year. While tenured positions are a luxury afforded only to university professors and schoolteachers, displacing young adults yearly and having them jump from one part-time placement contract to another in a school board that covers an area as vast and diverse as the ETSB can be hugely inconvenient for some and unfairly cruel to most.
One teacher that I spoke with has been waiting for a full-time tenured position for nearly nine years, working part-time contracts in various schools in the hopes that she may build up her seniority and land herself a permanent, secured position this fall. If this doesn’t happen, she says that she will have to give up her dream of having her own children, due to age. At thirty-seven years old, she has left this important life decision in the hands of the human resources department within her school board, which is heartbreaking.
But many schools within the ETSB have had declining enrolments in recent years, which means that secure teaching positions are even harder to come by. As Laframboise (2014) describes, “The sector’s troubles go beyond a sluggish job market — English school boards [in Quebec] face a decline in enrolment, extensive budget cuts, limitations on admission due to Bill 101, forced closures and merging of schools and a plunge in retirements” (para. 4). This is the primary reason I returned to Calgary after only one year of trying to find fulltime employment in Quebec. Like many English-speaking Quebecers before me, I found the lack of good paying, secure positions being offered within the province, particularly to non-francophone Quebecers, disheartening.
During my time in Quebec, an article in the Montreal Gazette described the job market for teachers in the province as “feast or famine” (Laframboise, 2014, para. 1). In essence, if you happened to be a qualified French-speaking educator, there are a number of positions open to you to select from across Quebec (Laframboise, 2014). But if you happen to be English-speaking and are not proficient enough in speaking French, the job prospects are not nearly as optimistic. Even after working for seven years within one of the most highly regarded school boards in North America and being nominated in 2015 for the Excellence in Teaching award out of literally thousands of other educators in Alberta, I had to, in effect, beg and plead for a part-time teaching position in the ETSB in August of 2015. And while I realize that I shouldn’t feel entitled to a full-time job over other teachers working in the province, the fact is that none of my experience or accomplishments within my prior board seemed to matter in Quebec. Ultimately, I struggled to find any work within the ETSB and had to leave in the summer of 2016. What I came to realize was that all the networking in the world could not resolve the only thing holding me back from living and working in Quebec: the only language I speak well enough is English.
From where I stand, the issue of language continues to be at the heart of many of the economic problems I am seeing in Quebec right now. Bill 101 in particular, which was developed to promote and protect the French language, is hurting the present and future use of the English language in the province (Tamilia, 1990). The erosion of a language community means that there is also a loss of richness in diverse cultures – including accessible high quality English education – and worldviews, intercultural contact, and social harmony, which are exactly the same issues that the francophone community has had to suffer through before. Ironically, this is the kind of marginalization that the francophone community has had to fight against previously. One would think that they would understand best why this type of segregation should not be repeated again. And while the pandemic dominates many of the economic conversations these days, Quebec will need to better address these issues sooner rather than later, so that all of its citizens can fully pull themselves out of despondency.
Laframboise, K. (2014, October 13). Young Quebec teachers face feast or famine. The Montreal Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.montrealgazette.com
Tamilia, R. D. (1990). English language business issues in a French-speaking environment: The case of Quebec, Annual Eastern Michigan University Conference on Languages and Communication for World Business and the Professions, Ypsilanti, MI, April 5-7, 1990. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED334819