McGill graduates remaining in Montreal
encounter both unique challenges and rewards

By Max Berger

For the majority of incoming, out-of-province McGill students, the choice to study at McGill over other universities is a fairly easy one. Between the school’s renowned academic reputation, diverse student body, and extracurricular and research opportunities, there’s already enough to attract most prospective students to McGill—and that’s all before considering its exceptional location.

Living in downtown Montreal, McGill students are afforded the rare opportunity of being steps away from a barrage of nightlife, artistic activity, unique neighbourhoods, and wide-ranging food options—not to mention the fact that there’s a mountain in the middle of the city. It’s the type of urban environment that young adults around the world jump at for the chance to live in, and for many McGill graduates, it is the perfect place to get their professional feet wet in for the first time.

Despite the attractions of working in Montreal, there is a very real apprehension among Anglophone students about doing so, and it may be holding them back from a post-graduation future in a city in which they’ve already invested several years.

To a certain degree, that fear is warranted. Before young graduates can start thinking about a Montreal life that doesn’t involve midterms or all-nighters in libraries, they need to find a job—which is where the worries begin. While Montreal is a bilingual city, it’s no secret that tensions over the use of the English language are prevalent—at both the municipal and provincial levels—and, as the past few decades have shown us, this uncertainty can carry occupational ramifications.

For many years, Montreal was Canada’s largest city in terms of both population and economic activity; however, over the course of the 20th century, Toronto surpassed it on both counts. The gap between the two municipalities widened dramatically after the then recently formed Parti Québécois (PQ) was elected in 1976 with a separatist agenda. In the ensuing decade, a significant number of anglophones left Montreal, many migrating to Toronto for the comparative stability it offered. Tensions hardly settled down in Quebec, which underwent two separate referenda—spearheaded by the PQ—in 1980 and 1995 that would have resulted in the province seceding from Canada had they passed. Although Quebec never separated, Montreal’s economy never returned to its former levels of national competitiveness. Research conducted by the Conference Board of Canada and École des Hautes Études commerciales de Montréal (HEC Montréal) found that if Montreal had experienced the average rate of economic growth in Canada over the past 25 years, per capita income in the city would be $2,780 higher than it is now.

Even during the short period of time that most of this year’s graduating class has spent at McGill, there has been no shortage of political drama affecting the Montreal workplace. The most famous example is the Quebec Charter of Values, which was proposed in fall 2013 by Pauline Marois’ PQ government and called for the banning of religious symbols (except for the cross, which is “culturally significant” to Quebec) in the workplace. Such a movement would have alienated much of Montreal’s workforce had it been adopted. Prior to meddling with public religious expression, the PQ was vigorously increasing the use of French in public services—many students may remember when ‘Pastagate’ broke out in early 2013 after a government food inspector sent a warning to the restaurant Buonanotte on Boulevard Saint-Laurent near Milton, demanding that they change the names of Italian food items on their menu to their French equivalents.

With this type of recent history in the city, it can certainly seem as if the deck is stacked against any anglophone student hoping to find success by staying in Montreal. Even though the political landscape has shifted—Marois’ PQ minority was replaced by a Liberal majority government last April—there’s no recent evidence to suggest that the overall economic one has improved at all. Still, favourable conditions do not always guarantee success, and unfavourable conditions certainly don’t guarantee failure—it all comes down to an individuals’ ability to use their skills to their advantage or to adapt to what’s out there. In spite of the city’s circumstances, many recent graduates have found viable ways of staying in Montreal. For some, that involves continuing on the path that they started on at McGill; for others, like Suzanne Dergacheva (BMus 2007), it means finding an entirely different niche in the professional world.

“I knew that I wanted to do something different and I didn’t want to start off with an entry-level job, like I think a lot of music graduates end up doing,” Dergacheva said. “The idea of starting a business really appealed to me, and my boyfriend suggested we start a web developing company together. I didn’t know anything about web development, so I started to teach myself the basics in my last semester at McGill.”

The two of them co-founded Evolving Web shortly after graduating, and in the seven and a half years since, Dergacheva has implemented websites for McGill, Travelocity, A&E Television, and the Government of Canada—an impressive feat for someone who graduated with minimal computer science experience.

Her success, though, is representative of Montreal’s active tech industry, according to fellow McGill graduate Marina Byezhanova (BComm 2004). Byezhanova works for Pronexia, an Outremont headhunting company looking to “refute old-school recruiting practices” and help job candidates in specific ways that are tailored to the modern generation.

“We deal a lot with tech companies and the start-up scene, and Quebec is great [in] supporting those companies,” Byezhanova explained. “There are amazing investors, really nice venture capitalist firms that support these businesses, and there’s [assistance] from the government [for] technology credits and supporting them as well, so that helps. Even if we were comparing to Toronto, where salaries might be a bit higher, we get really nice technical talent thanks to that.”

Another organization that pays careful attention to the Montreal job landscape is McGill’s Career Planning Service (CaPS), which helps students determine their career paths and find jobs, hosting over 300 career-related events throughout the year. In her recent experience, CaPS director Darlene Hnatchuk has identified several other fields that are especially encouraging for anglophone students who want to work in Montreal right now.

“Typically the sectors that are recruiting more heavily would be aerospace, IT, health and social services, consulting, non-profits, education, [and] finance,” Hnatchuk said.

And, as Dergacheva added, there’s an important job pool that tends to fly under the radar.

“It gets overlooked but [there are] a lot of jobs at McGill and at the MUHC (McGill University Health Centre), the English hospital network,” she said. “Most of those are English jobs.”

Hnatchuk, in her position, has also had the chance to observe the broader ways in which the city’s economy has shifted over time.

“Probably one of the biggest trends we’ve seen is the decrease in the manufacturing sector and the increase in the services sector,” she noted. “Services is very, very large. We’re talking about professional and technical services, we’re not just talking about retail, which people often associate with services.”

One thing that has stayed consistent over the years in Montreal is its vibrant artistic community. Few cities in the world can compete with Montreal in terms of fostering an environment that encourages the creation and consumption of art and other cultural activities. Even in a city like Montreal, though, making a living off one’s artistic talent alone can be a daunting prospect. Like Dergacheva, many McGill arts students and enthusiasts will go on to pursue other professional avenues; Nova Scotia native Andrew Boudreau is another graduate from McGill’s Schulich School of Music (BMus 2013) who remained in Montreal, but he stayed specifically to find music-related work.

"It became more apparent as I kept studying [at McGill] that I really loved Montreal and the music scene, so it was definitely a place that I wanted to be in after finishing school,” said Boudreau.

To set himself up for that transition, Boudreau capitalized on the connections he could build during his time at McGill and also began teaching on the side—a steady job that has helped him balance out the challenge earning income by performing consistently.

“I had already been performing a little bit while I was in school and also teaching a little bit,” Boudreau recalled. “I teach privately—[not] through an institution—so I had a couple of students when I was still at McGill, and once I finished I had a better chance to expand my teaching studio and the same thing for performing [....] One of the things that really helped, obviously, would be all the people I knew from studying at McGill. There were a couple professors I had the chance to play with while I was studying, and I continued to play with a few of them after I was done studying as well.”

One of the realities of having an English-speaking university in a bilingual city is that anglophone students from out of town develop a strong attachment to the city, but never learn to speak French fluently; as such, they feel pressured to leave. There are certainly many jobs to be had in Montreal that either do not require French, or are only looking for employees to have a basic, functional understanding of it. However, it’s hard for any workplace to fully escape the spectre of the French language.

“I would say that one of the challenges of living in Montreal is the bilingualism—[or] more a company’s fear of what bilingual expectations and metrics they should be meeting,” Byezhanova explained. “There are quite a few companies in Montreal that are anglophone [where] you don’t need much French to operate [….] But we noticed, prior to the most recent provincial elections, a few of these companies started getting nervous and focusing not on hiring people based on skill, but hiring people who would be fluent in French, just to make sure that they would be protecting themselves should there be a government investigation.”

Although it appears that those ‘Pastagate’-like types of worries have died down in Montreal for the foreseeable future, learning French is still a worthwhile investment—both in terms of improving job prospects and getting more out of the city. McGill offers many undergraduate courses in French instruction, but students often cannot take those courses because of other academic requirements or an unwillingness to take on a new language when they’re focused so intensely on other areas of study. Fortunately, there are several accessible options available for Montrealers who want to learn French but are not in school. These include certain government-sponsored programs and classes with private organizations such as the Commission Scolaire de Montreal, Youth Employment Services Montreal, and CLC Montreal.

Finding desirable work in Montreal may prove to be more challenging for anglophone graduates than it would be in other North American cities, but for those who do, there’s a real reward—the chance to experience an incredible city in a completely different way, removed from student life and immersed in the city. Still, especially for those whose primary university friends have moved away, it doesn’t hurt to move into that phase of life with a large network of fellow graduates, which is something that the McGill Young Alumni (MYA) organization—led by its current president, Dergacheva—has built.

“We organize events in Montreal for students [who] have graduated in the last 10 years, specifically to help them connect with other young alumni,” Dergacheva explained. “We have events that are purely social [….] We do some sports events—like every summer we have a volleyball event— [and] we go snowshoeing up the mountain. [There are] pub nights [and we] also have career oriented events like networking and mentoring workshops [….] We’ll have 60 to 80 people come out to an event usually, and we have at least one event every month.”

In terms of living situations, young graduates tend to move to neighbourhoods that the more adventurous McGill students enjoy branching out to.

“A lot of people end up [in the Plateau and Mile End], [which are] just great [places] to live,” Dergacheva said. “It’s also getting more expensive, so [there are] people moving out now to the Atwater area, around the [Lachine] Canal, and even St. Henri, which is a little bit further, and then up by the Jean Talon market. There [are] people going up there—maybe not quite as much just when they’re graduating university, maybe a few years later.”

It’s that fantastic balance of community and culture that, in spite of the obstacles and challenges which can arise for out-of-town graduates, has drawn Boudreau and others to stay in Montreal after their time at McGill came to a close. Regardless of whether or not one’s end goal involves settling down in Montreal, it’s hard to argue against holding onto the city for a little bit longer.

“I’m certainly still thinking about [staying here long-term],” Boudreau said. “I’m really happy to be here right now, and I have the opportunity to be a part of some really great projects, so I’m definitely not bored and I’m not itching to get out of Montreal [....]But I kind of have the feeling that if I did move, I would be thinking about Montreal pretty regularly, because it’s a pretty great spot to be.”