What is now almost official history in this province is that Bill 101, which turned 30 in August, righted historic wrongs by increasing the demand for French-speaking workers and closing the wage gap between English- and French-speakers in Quebec, mainly by raising the wages of historically underpaid francophones.
A new study by David Albouy, a young Franco-American economist who was an undergraduate at McGill University and is now teaching at the University of Michigan, suggests the official history isn't quite right. It seems the wage gap was closed more by lowering the relative wages of Quebec anglophones than raising those of Quebec francophones, who weren't actually that badly off to begin with.
Albouy uses census data to look at the employment income of males 20 to 59 who worked full time. Unlike other researchers, who typically compared anglo and franco Quebecers, he divides wage-earners into four groups: anglophones and francophones both inside and outside Quebec. That lets him see how Quebec wage rates compared with those in the rest of the country.
His results are intriguing. In 1970, Quebec francophones averaged $16.40 an hour (measured in the purchasing power of year-2000 dollars). That was only three per cent less than francophones in the rest of the country, who averaged $16.90 an hour. The similarity suggests Canadian labour markets were pretty integrated and francophone Quebecers didn't regard themselves as stuck in Quebec, an argument often used to rationalize lower wages here than elsewhere.
In 1970, however, anglophones in the rest of the country averaged $18.70 an hour, 11 per cent more than non-Quebec francophones and 14 per cent more than Quebec francophones. How come? Could be differences in education or experience. Could be the usefulness of English in the world market. Could be simple, old-fashioned discrimination. The raw data don't say.
Quebec anglophones are the real surprise. In 1970, they made $22.20 an hour, fully 35 per cent more than Quebec francophones, a gap that prompts thoughts of Westmount Rhodesians, "speak white!" and all the rest.
But it was also 19 per cent more than anglophones in the rest of the country. How was it that Quebec anglophones had such an advantage over English-speakers in other provinces? And if the pickings were so easy in anglo Quebec, why didn't anglos from the rest of the country come here and drive down anglo wages?
What happened after 1970? In relative terms, Quebec anglophones got hammered. Their average wages in 2000 were $22.30, still the highest in the country, but only 10 cents more than in 1970. By contrast, non-Quebec anglophones had risen to $21.90, non-Quebec francophones to $21.20, and Quebec francophones to $20.60. Wage differences essentially collapsed. There was only an eight-per-cent difference between top and bottom, vs. 35 per cent in 1970.
Why did Quebec's anglophones still lead the pack, despite all that has happened over the last three decades? Very likely because they were much better educated than the other three groups. In 2000, fully 24 per cent held at least a bachelor's degree. That compares with just 17 per cent of anglos outside Quebec and just 15 per cent of francophones in Quebec.
In fact, if you control for differences in education, in 2000 there was an unexplained wage gap favouring Quebec francophones. Yes, they made less on average than anglos, but, given their lower average education, they made more than they "should have" - about four per cent more. That's a big change since 1970, when they made almost 14 per cent less than expected, given their education and experience.
It's always tempting to ascribe wage differences that differences in education, training, experience can't explain to discrimination. But it's probably not wise. Wages may depend on more things than even the smartest economists, like Albouy, can squeeze into their equations. There might not have been discrimination in favour of anglos in 1970 and there might not be discrimination against them now.
What is clear is that for whatever reason, the big losers in Quebec, relatively speaking, over the last three decades have been anglophones.
William Watson teaches economics at McGill University.
While francophones get richer, anglophones get poorer
New study by a Franco-American challenges some old myths about Quebec