Education

Anglophone students aren’t welcome in Quebec—so I’m leaving

This Concordia student sees no future for himself in Quebec
Joël Louiseize
Illustration by Macleans Getty and Supplied

I grew up in Sturgeon Falls, a tiny community in northern Ontario near the Quebec border. My family is Franco-Ontarian, so I grew up speaking French. In 2013 I moved to Toronto to study music production; I wanted to write and record music professionally. After I graduated, I backpacked around Europe and worked odd jobs across Canada for several years. By 2018, I’d settled in Ontario’s Muskoka region with my girlfriend, Kaitlyn. I was done travelling and wanted to build roots somewhere. I was hoping to get certified as a teacher, while doing music on the side. We started out working at hotels—I did kitchen work and groundskeeping, and she handled admin and front desk.

When I visited Montreal for the first time, I fell in love with the vibrant music scene. I figured it was a great environment to grow as an artist, with plenty of job opportunities for me and Kaitlyn, especially compared to our small-town life. The city also had excellent universities, like McGill and Concordia, where I could get a bachelor’s in education and then enrol in teacher’s college. Kaitlyn was hesitant about the move, mainly because she couldn’t speak any French. But I told her that there were lots of Anglophone people in Montreal, that we’d fit in without any issues. 

We officially moved to Montreal in June of 2022. We both found work at a warehouse—I did inventory and product photography in the back, and Kaitlyn had an administrative job at the front. We got a one-bedroom apartment in the Rosemont neighbourhood, near the Olympic stadium. My plan was to work full-time for a year and save up to start school in the fall of 2023. Long-term, I hoped to teach in Montreal and eventually buy a home north of the city. 

READ: “Financially, it would be catastrophic”: A university principal on Quebec’s tuition hikes

That first summer was exciting. I biked around, exploring the city’s beautiful historic buildings and parks. Early on, though, we started noticing language issues. One day, a librarian refused to speak to me in French, despite the fact that I’m a Francophone—I suppose my Franco-Ontarian dialect threw her off, and she flatly decided I was an English speaker, not French. Those kinds of incidents kept happening. I’d go shopping and speak French to employees, who would give me looks of confusion, sometimes even annoyance, and then respond in English. 

Things were worse for Kaitlyn. A couple of times, store clerks blatantly scoffed at her lack of French. After that, she only used self-checkout or relied on me to pay for things. Then, in February of 2023, she got into a serious car accident. Dazed and in pain, she attempted to tell hospital receptionists what had happened to her, but they acted as if they couldn’t understand a word of English. She managed to find a security guard willing to interpret for her. Once he started speaking with the staffers, they all suddenly switched to perfect English. Those surreal, Kafkaesque kinds of experiences left both of us bewildered. We started feeling unwanted in a city we had been trying to embrace as our new home. The more we tried to integrate ourselves, the more people seemed to reject our efforts. 

Last summer, I was accepted into Concordia University’s arts and sciences certificate program. Then, in October, soon after I started my first semester, the Quebec government made its now-infamous announcement that tuition for out-of-province Canadian students would nearly double from about $9,000 to $17,000 per year, starting in 2024. Although I lived in Montreal, I was still considered out-of-province since I hadn’t obtained official Quebec residency. In December, the province announced it will reduce the extent of the hikes to just $12,000, as long as the vast majority of out-of-province students also learn French before graduating. But the difference is still an enormous burden, bureaucratically and financially. The announcement clarified that existing students wouldn’t be affected—but that didn’t make me exempt. When I declare my major after two years of study, I’ll be classified as a new student, and my tuition will skyrocket.

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I was stunned and confused. I went to a financial aid office to ask what I could do about the tuition hike. Their suggestion was clear: apply for official Quebec residency immediately. After living in Montreal for more than a year, I was eligible, but the option felt like a forced commitment, a leap into the unknown without fully experiencing life in the city. We were already having second thoughts about staying in Quebec long-term because of the discouraging treatment we’d received from locals. Making matters worse were provincial French language reform laws like Bill 96, which seems to punish non-French speaking immigrants by requiring them to receive government services exclusively in French six months after their arrival. We felt like outsiders, unappreciated and unwanted, no matter how hard we tried to fit in. 

There were other people who had it even worse than us. What about students who need to work during summers in their home provinces to pay for school? Obtaining Quebec residency wasn’t an option for them. What about high schoolers from all over Canada who’ve worked hard to get into schools like McGill? This tuition hike completely ruined their plans. It was so unfair. 

The Quebec government justified the tuition hike by stating it would generate extra funds from out-of-province students. These funds would then be allocated to French-language universities, which typically attract fewer students from outside Quebec and, consequently, generate less revenue. But this justification neglects the fact that out-of-province students contribute to Quebec’s economy through taxes, rent and support for local businesses. In most instances, out-of-province students don’t rely on Quebec for financial support—my tuition is covered by Ontario’s student assistance program, for example—so we’re also bringing in tuition revenue from other provinces. This hike will discourage many out-of-province students from choosing Quebec, potentially resulting in a net loss for the province rather than a benefit. 

The Quebec government is exempting new students from France, as well as Francophone Belgians, from the tuition increase. Despite being a native French speaker who was educated in French, I’m denied the exemption extended to international students. It seems like an odd choice, considering there are more than 600,000 Francophones in Ontario alone, some of whom will now look the other way instead of considering Quebec’s potential. The tuition hike was clearly done, at least in  part, in an effort to reduce the amount of English spoken in the province. 

Montreal has long been celebrated as a multicultural and inclusive city, but I don’t know if that’s still true. Canada is built on multiculturalism, and yet Quebec’s premier, François Legault, has spoken about the need to fight multiculturalism. Quebec is effectively bypassing Canada’s Multiculturalism Act by dismantling bilingual aspects of everyday life: people are entitled to their culture as long as it’s within a French framework. I’ve seen these identity games play out in the shocking treatment Kaitlyn received in that hospital last year. How will those ripple effects affect non-French speakers in much more vulnerable and precarious situations? 

READ: I work with migrants in Quebec. The province’s new language rules are dangerous.

All these thoughts swirled in my head as I considered my two options: invest further in my future in Quebec, or take an alternative path. In the end, the tuition hike was the final straw. It’s too late for us. It isn’t worth it to devote any more time and energy in Quebec, especially given the possibility of even more changes in the coming years. 

We’re frustrated and disappointed. We tried to establish a life here, especially Kaitlyn, who took a few stabs at learning French, but found it difficult to juggle language classes with full-time work. Kaitlyn has requested a transfer to her company’s office in Toronto. My plan is to complete my first year at Concordia—I’m still only paying the original tuition fee, thankfully—and then transfer to a school in Toronto the following semester. We’ve already started searching for a place to live in Toronto. We know the cost of living there is much higher compared to Montreal, but we’re hoping we’ll find a more inclusive, multicultural atmosphere. Even though French is my first language, I constantly immerse myself in English media and books and consider it part of my cultural identity—and it’s something I wish to maintain without barriers. Deciding to leave Quebec wasn’t just about escaping tuition hikes. It was about seeking a new home where we feel valued and accepted for who we are.

—As told to Ali Amad