La Tyrannie du Français

So why did we come to Calgary? In short due to “La Tyrannie du Français”, that’s why. Being in Calgary was not the original plan, Montreal was our starting city, and we had no other reason to believe that we couldn’t find our home in “La belle province”. Montreal is a great place for tourists, tons of festivals, parades and culture… but is a very lousy place to make a living if you don’t speak their language which, no matter what they say, is not French; we had 2 years of French training and I’m sure as hell they don’t speak French in Montreal, plus there were are no “quebecoise” lessons.

Before you go all up in arms “well what did you expect dummy, you are going to another country, you should have learnt the language … “, let me explain something here. We started our process in Mexico and for 18 months we were reminded on the keys to a successful integration into Quebec’s society:

  • Several sessions with the “Délégation générale du Québec à Mexico”, guess what’s important? Speak french.
  • Evaluation by the consulate, “parlez vous Francais?”, hell oui.
  • Paperwork from the Canadian embassy … you better speak English or French, to better your chances.

So, what do you do when you just dropped several thousand dollars in an immigration process and you don’t want it to go to waste? well, you sign up for French lessons for 18 months (Alliance Français Mexique), you get your diplomas and you try to tip the scale in your favor and then, after all the approvals, you get into a plane with your family and go 5000 kms away from what you have always known.

It was close to 10:00PM on a hot summer day when we arrived to Montreal; when we got into immigration at the airport we were scared, excited, stressed but mostly exhausted from traveling 5 hours, answering questions from our son; who would knew that we were 45 minutes away from having our first “enchanté” moment.  When you follow the rules and the process your pass through immigration is smoother than when you don’t, so it took us only about 45 minutes to get our paperwork in order, since most of it was already done in the Canadian embassy in Mexico; after hearing “Welcome to Canada, good luck” we were pretty happy and felt validated “we made the right choice”, our next step on the checklist was to register with the Quebec government so we go looking for their booth, Beaming with confidence we found it: “Excuse moi, je suis désolée mais…” I might as well have said “merde” because the look that woman gave us “qu’est ce que tu veux? Ugh autres immigrés”, maybe it was late, maybe she was having a bad moment, all I remember was feeling lost, then angrier “what the f… Just happened?”; I do not remember how we got registered or the instructions, all I remember now is the very different treatment from a federal agent and a Quebec government worker … strike one.

As we settled in, we realized that our French training was not enough; we were able to try communicating and on federal buildings, although reluctantly, we could get away with asking for service in English; despite this we were able to secure a lease, get our kid into a childcare facility, get around, you know live. And as you know, you need money to live, our savings were OK but without they were projected to last only for 6 months so I started to search for jobs while my wife care for our kid as daycare was only a few hours a day.

Montreal has a huge underground economy based on immigrants which allows for all kind of abuses: from people trying to game the system and work when they are collecting benefits, the “contractors” who would underpay workers to maximize gains and willingly breaking the law, to the Quebequers so eager to employ cheap labor. I have an engineering degree in electronics with a major in computer science and in Mexico I worked in a multinational company but couldn’t find a job because “you don’t speak French well enough. We conduct most of our business in English but we need you to have a higher French knowledge so we don’t get in trouble with the province”; after several job interviews with the same ending and our savings disappearing I went into odd works: working on a farm seeding plants, working on a broccoli packing facility and, the final straw, working picking up garbage in the highway; this was the last day I worked like this, we wanted to change but going down this path was not the change we were looking for … strike two.

As I sat under the highway bridge, clothes full of dirt, choosing between washing your hands or drink the water and eating a warm watermelon I decided that this was not good enough for me; I would stop working odd jobs and I would expand my job search to other places in Canada where French is not official language; I was done with the whole “French” crap.  My wife and I talked and came to an understanding, she and my son were adapting well but I just couldn’t get a decent job and we didn’t move be in a worse position than in Mexico; we still really liked Montreal so while we expanded our job search, we will keep trying to improve our French skills by taking training offered by the various government, after all we had already signed a lease for a year. With a full dedication to job searching, an expanded searching area and the support of the YES organization I shift the focus into English speaking jobs. While all this happened, we tried to enroll into the government sponsored French classes, we were successful but with a small caveat, our projected time to get into the program: 18 months … Strike three.

It wasn’t easy, it took about a month, but we were able to find work in my field, in an English-speaking province. I still wonder what would have been. I still try to learn French, I still love Montreal and I would like to visit Ottawa but man, “Je me souviens”.