Montreal·Point of View

I live the Anglo hustle in Montreal — and yes, finding fulfilling work seems like a fantasy

Jessica Brown studied French for 15 years in Ontario, but when she moved to Montreal, she became insecure about whether her French was good enough to allow her to compete with francophone job seekers.

Employers want 'good French' or 'excellent French' or 'fluent French.' Where does an insecure Ontarian fit in?

Jessica Brown studied French for 15 years in Ontario, but she isn't sure how her language skills compare to those of francophone Quebecers. It's one of hurdles she faces when applying for jobs. (Submitted by Jessica Brown)

"Why stay?"

It's a question that haunts me as I try to create a life for myself in Montreal.

Coping with underemployment has proven to be an unexpected mental balancing act.

On the one hand, the cost of living is lower here than in Vancouver or Toronto — I can scrape by on a few well-timed gigs or short-term contracts. 

On the other, days of unstructured activity start to blend together, and nights out often mean sheepishly accepting that second drink from a generous (and employed) friend.

Maintaining a positive head space becomes hard when how I contribute to this world — and what my presence offers this city — is unclear at best.

People ask me, "What do you do?"

I find myself stumped for a moment before answering, ruefully and with a shake of my head, "I guess I'm a writer. I write."

"Oh! What do you write? Have I seen your work anywhere?"

No, not unless you're an avid reader of internal corporate survey reports.

When I first started planning my move to Montreal from Toronto three years ago, I decided that I wanted to work in an indie bookstore.

I packed furniture into a U-Haul and contacted each bookstore in the city to ask if they were hiring.

I got a hit — Encore Books on Sherbrooke Street.

They said they would be looking for someone in about a month. Perfect. 

Books, writers and shelving in NDG

Brown got a job she loved in a second-hand bookstore when she first arrived in Montreal. (Submitted by Jessica Brown)

I moved and found an inexpensive apartment nearby, excited to start.

Bookstores in general are a happy place for us academics, writers and daydreamers — second-hand bookstores are practically sacred.

Working in one offered all the romanticism I could have wanted — along with a healthy amount of work pricing and shelving.

The important thing was, I was in Montreal, making a living.

To be clear, I didn't go to school to study literature or bookstore management.

My undergraduate degree was a combination of political philosophy and anthropology, and my master's degree was in political science.

Initially, my plan was to spend my first year in Montreal working while making connections in the academic community that could help me apply to do a PhD at one of the city's universities.

But suddenly, I found myself approaching year two at the bookstore, and I knew it was time for a change.

I didn't want to leave Montreal. Moving is expensive and stressful, and I'd made friends here.

So I was back on the job hunt. But this time, I wanted more than retail work in an Anglo enclave.

As an anglophone from outside Quebec, I found myself navigating a strange new language matrix.

How good is 'good French'?

Employers wanted "good French" or "excellent French" or "fluent French." Some needed written French, and others, only spoken.

Some listed French as an "asset," others, as a "requirement."

The distinction between 'good French,' 'excellent French' and 'fluent French' on a job posting can be hard to grasp. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

It often wasn't clear what the French would be used for (speaking with clients? Writing memos? Ordering the correct writing on a staff birthday cake?)

I studied French for about 15 years in school, but I'm not sure how a francophone would classify my proficiency — so I self-categorize in ways that seem almost arbitrary.

I would get stressful visions of walking into a job interview with two French-speaking interviewers from small-town Quebec.

It wasn't just the language question that made the job hunt difficult. I wanted to find work that allowed me to use my education more directly — research, policy, grant-writing — and it simply feels like there are few of those jobs available here.

The English-language universities seemed like a good bet — a fairly English-speaking environment combined with that coveted feeling that my skills are benefiting a larger community.

After applying to about four different jobs at one of them, I happened to be in conversation with a fellow job seeker who told me that those jobs are not only highly sought after in the English academic community but notoriously hard to get.

She told me about someone she knew who had applied for years without success.

Following up on a research job I recently applied for, the kind-but-flustered hiring manager told me, "It's been a bit overwhelming. We had between 70 and 80 applicants for the position."

So where am I now?

Concordia University and other Anglo institutions post jobs regularly, but those positions are notoriously hard to secure, Brown says. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

When all else fails: optimism 

I find myself relying more on freelance work than I ever imagined — and even that is sometimes supplemented with the financial generosity of friends and family.

I find myself inhabiting half a dozen of the city's coffee shops, hoping to get a little human contact while I finish whatever small corporate writing gig I've got.

In the time I've been here, I've found little pockets of job hunters like me, and groups that want to support us.

For instance, employment counsellors at Youth Employment Services Montreal have given me insight into the local market, and an online job hunters' group for anglophones from out-of-province helps me find leads.

Sure, the job hunt hustle isn't unique to Montreal, and my own struggles are mixed in with issues surrounding my vocational calling (What do I want to be when I grow up?) and mental health (How do I battle that persistent little voice of self-doubt?)

But the small pools of opportunity here, further limited by language laws and language politics, leave me scraping by — something that's new to me.

For now, I'm going to stick it out.

The friends I have met since I moved here have this crazy idea that I can make it.

They're mostly anglophones from outside of Quebec — artists, academics and IT workers.

They swear that it just takes time for an outsider to find their place in Montreal. Their optimism is rubbing off on me.

As I walk the tightrope between idealism and practicality, between the desire to stay in a community I've come to love and the reality that staying might mean permanent underemployment, the question I ask myself is changing.

It's less and less, "Why stay?" and increasingly, "How could I not?" 


Jessica Brown is a writer who has lived in Montreal since 2016.


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