Accueil » 23-3 ( 1968) » Le bilinguisme dans l’industrie, mythe ou réalité?

Le bilinguisme dans l’industrie, mythe ou réalité?

Aimé Gagné


L’auteur fournit une réponse claire en se servant d'un cas d'espèce, celui de l'ALCAN.


Bilingual Communications in Industry – Can It Be Achieved?


In Quebec, bilingualism is necessary in industry. To industry, in Quebec, bilingualism is a distinct advantage. But let's not delude ourselves : making industry operate in two languages costs money. Bilingualism implies expenditure. In turn, this expenditure is a sound investment.

This much being said, I could resume my seat. For I just gave you my conclusion.

I gather, however, that I was not asked to give you a « minitalk » and let you clarify my own thoughts. The reason I am here, obviously, is to answer the question printed on the agenda : « Bilingual Communications in Industry — Can It Be Achieved ? »

May I point out right away that I was asked to offer a case study. So, my case study will be based on the general theme of the achievement of bilingual communications in industry.

This theme, of course, must be defined more specifically. We are talking about bilingualism in what industry ? « Quebec industry », presumably. In any case, my remarks are based on this assumption. And now, the other part of the question : can bilingualism be achieved ? No use beating about the bush — it has not been achieved in certain Quebec companies and it has in others.

But, to put it squarely, it can be achieved and it should. Bilingualism should be an everyday reality in all areas of the Quebec economy. I do mean all areas : industry, commerce, public utilities and other services, banking, the Stock Exchange and financial operations in general. Bilingualism should be kept in mind in the printing of lease and mortgage loan forms, in labor agreements and in the hiring of telephone operators, as well as in any and all other economic activities throughout Quebec.


I hardly need to explain to you that bilingualism comes directly under the heading of communications. After all, what is language if not a means to communicate ?

At this juncture, we could ask ourselves what the cost of poor communications may be. And we might ask ourselves other related questions : for instance, how much cumulative time is lost in Quebec due to misunderstandings between French and English speaking Canadians ? In financial terms, how do we evaluate the difference in wavelengths between two viewpoints ? In the end, how much does it cost Canada to suffer from the bad feelings generated by the fact that industry is not bilingual in Quebec ? Have we put a dollar sign on the language problem ? It is a safe bet that no answer may ever be found to such questions, except one of approximate generalization such as : « In the long run it must add up to a hefty figure ».

Before commenting further in this regard I wish to define my role in this seminar. I am no preacher. I am not here to preach bilingualism. In fact I want to preach exactly nothing. All I want to do is to answer the question asked on the agenda. And I have already done so in stating that, in Quebec, bilingualism is necessary and advantageous in industry.

And in Quebec, bilingualism is possible. Better still, it is practiced. It is an essential aspect of communications. To live a normal life, men must understand one another, they must pull down the hurdles that impede communications. Since you and I are professional communicators, there is no need to prove such an elementary truth.


Still, you may be interested in a factual instance which seems appropriate at this point. It has to do with the statement made to a newsman by a distinguished Canadian woman who has written best-sellers.

With other Canadians of note, she was a guest at an official dinner. After a while she noticed that the man seated on her left was paying no attention to her. He never looked her way. Out of curiosity she nudged him gently and said a few casual words.

Right away she saw that the man had a glass eye, the right eye, the one on her side. It also happened that her left ear was deaf. So, both blindness and deafness separated them. This, naturally, had been an obstacle to their getting acquainted. Once this fact was acknowledged the conversation started to run at a fast clip.

I need not add that, in the area of communications, one must look and listen — mind you, I don't say see and hear, but look and listen. If we look and listen in earnest we are sure to see and hear. It's not a matter of being able to but rather one of wanting to. In other words, it is a matter of attitude, of a friendly frame of mind, of goodwill. Before testing one's ability to communicate, one must want to communicate. It's as simple as that.

A moment ago I said that, in Quebec, bilingualism is a fact in industry. This, I think, calls for some qualification. What bilingualism are we talking about? That of French Canadians or that of English Canadians ?


I made it quite clear, at the beginning of my remarks, that I had been asked to present a case study. I picked on the one I know best, that of the company i work for — Alcan. And I just added that, so far as bilingualism in Quebec is concerned, we should find out which way it's going : from French to English or from English to French?

Well, in Quebec, Alcan's bilingualism is a two-way street. Therefore, I am not talking to you about an organization where only French Canadians are bilingual, but one where a great many English-speaking people express themselves in French every day of the week. In fostering bilingualism in both directions, Alcan has simply been minding its own business. It has always been Alcan's notion that speaking both languages in Quebec is good business. It started to speak both when it first came to Canada — more precisely to Shawinigan, at the turn of the century. In fact, our Company feels that speaking several languages is the business-like thing to do.

Hence am I in no way embarrassed in choosing Alcan as a case study for a huge international complex which has identified itself with its numerous language environments. One of those environments is Quebec. And in Quebec Alcan is bilingual. It has always been. It is ever more so. But our company does not go overboard in this connection. Our management never considered ethnic origin a priority reason to hire or promote anyone.

The four French Canadians who are vice-presidents in the Alcan group of companies didn't get there because they are French Canadians. No, the reason is simply that they are competent. Our French-speaking works managers, one of whom runs the world's largest aluminum complex, in Arvida, were not promoted because they are French Canadians, but rather because, year after year, they proved their competence at ever higher levels of management. They didn't get the top jobs suddenly. Like all their colleagues of various ethnic origins they had to make the grade.

I'll go even further. While I myself am French Canadian to the core, and although, like most French Canadians, I am sensitized to the nationalistic leanings of those we like to call « our own people », I would be the first to acknowledge that being French Canadian, in Quebec, should never supersede competence when it comes to promotions.

In a remote sense it may be argued that being French Canadian in Quebec is one of the many aspects of merit. Such a consideration, however, ought not to be blown up to the extent of dwarfing several others, such as technological knowledge, managerial know-how, the art communicating clearly, drive, punctuality, devotion to duty, leadership.

Let's go on to a concrete example.


Does the name Melchior Carrière ring a bell with you ?

I would doubt it. At Alcan, however — and especially in Shawinigan — the name is the French equivalent of Horatio Alger.

Who was the late Melchior Carrière ? No less than one of the grand masters, a genuine virtuoso, of aluminum production in North America. He started as a common laborer. He eventually became the company's general manager of aluminum production. He trained a good many men who hold major positions in the aluminum industry. Alcan was not interested in whether he was French Canadian or not. He made it to the top on merit alone. And this the company acknowledged publicly when he celebrated his fortieth year of service.

To climb gradually from a menial job to the top level in aluminum production in a company the size of Alcan's is an achievement which proves that, in a case like that of Melchior Carrière, being French Canadian is no hindrance when merit is the prime consideration.

Melchior Carrière bore witness to another attitude on the part of Alcan management. The moment they set up shop in Shawinigan, the company's pioneers started to recruit French-speaking personnel, local people who were provided with opportunities to learn more and more about the aluminum business and who gradually were promoted to important positions. You cannot ascribe to mere chance the fact that there are so many French Canadians at the head of major departments within Alcan. Nor should you think that Alcan acted differently in the case of French Canadians. What it has done here and is still doing in more than thirty countries around the world.


Alcan has long been in the habit of identifying itself with its environments to the extent of picking up languages as a matter of course. Last October in Japan, for instance, the president of Alcan Aluminum (Asia) Limited, who is also the Alcan Group's general manager for the Far East, was bestowed the rare privilege, for a Westener, of playing a prestigious part in a Shinto wedding ceremony. He hails from Switzerland. But he now speaks Japanese.

He and his wife were the « baishakunin » — or intermediaries — between bride and groom during the religious rituals. This meant supervising the whole sequence of rituals both at rehearsals and at the ceremony proper, participating in the strict Shinto etiquette themselves, then proclaiming in Japanese that the rites were valid. Later, at a dinner attended by some three hundred guests, the Alcan executive spoke again in Japanese, with just the right sprinkling of humor the occasion called for.

So, a top Alcan executive speaks Japanese ? Of course. What else...

Now, let's face it. Would Alcan be multilingual if it wasn't good business ? Is it not crystal clear that being bilingual in Quebec helps our company ? Why should it act different here from the way it does all the world over?


Let me say that in Quebec specifically, over the last thirty years or so, our company has been footing the bill for French courses attended by a great many of its English-speaking executives. Ditto for English courses followed by French-speaking personnel. Again, we in Alcan believe that bilingualism in Quebec is a two-way street. Bilingualism costs money ? Why, of course. It's not itemized in detail on the balance sheet, but it's budgeted for. And we feel it's a sound investment.

In the educational field we have taken other steps. To help those of our employees who had not reached the ninth grade the company went into adult education in a big way with the help of local school boards. It was agreed with these boards that the French language would be one of the main three subjects at the time of exams.

Alcan went even farther and, here, it broke new ground in personnel training. That was in 1943. Some of our employees were taking courses by mail from International Correspondence School. An English-speaking Alcan executive who had been a professor asked I.C.S. permission to have its courses translated into French, plus the right, for French-speaking students, to undergo their exams in French. This — a new departure for I.C.S. — was granted. Today, the English-speaking gentleman who had blazed a new trail in personnel training is a technical adviser with the Quebec Department of Education. There's B & B for you ! Alcan is proud of such people.

Believe it or not, Alcan may have gone a little too far in its effort to become part and parcel of Quebec. Before power utilities were nationalized, a few years ago, Alcan had a subsidiary in the Saguenay/Lake St John district. It was called Saguenay Electric Company.

It was 100 per cent French, right down to the initials in its elevator. Two of its presidents in succession were French Canadians. When the company was nationalized, however, a good many top management people in the subsidiary wanted to remain within the Alcan group. The trouble was they were not bilingual enough, although they knew their electrical onions better than most, They rated a good position with Alcan, naturally, but phasing them in was no picnic. Because Alcan, same as all large international corporations, must speak English and not only local languages.

Now, here is another minor point to stress. Since it is an Alcan policy to buy from local suppliers who can meet the company's conditions, communications are in the suppliers' language as much as circumstances make it possible.


Speaking to industrial editors, I feel it appropriate to recall that the first Alcan plant paper put out in Canada was entirely in French. It was published in Shawinigan under the name of « La Revue de l’Aluminium ».

In the Saguenay/Lake St. John district, Alcan's weekly « Le Lingot » prints only a couple of pages in English out of an average sixteen. It covers the nine works and other Alcan locations in the area. Out there, the company puts out two other French papers, one at Arvida works and the other at the Isle-Maligne works, in the town of Alma. The Alcan papers in Shawinigan and Beauharnois are also exclusively in French.

Are Alcan's plant paper editors satisfied with the standard of French they print ? Being perfectionists, I don't think they ever will be. But they do keep improving.

We started more than twenty-five years ago using international French aluminum terminology in our plant papers. And don't kid yourselves : French Canadian employees grasped all shades of meaning in that terminology. They use the international French words pertaining to their jobs more and more. In our training courses we try to use the proper expressions so that employees at all echelons get to know them. We keep adding to the French aluminum vocabulary year after year, building up a lexicon which is kept up to date.

Incidentally this lexicon is not limited to the metallurgy of aluminum. It encompasses other fields, including accounting. In this respect, it may be noteworthy that both the French and the English versions of Alcan's annual report are official.


Alcan personnel at all levels acknowledge the fact that bilingualism in Quebec is company policy. This policy is not spelled out in the form of an edict. Rather, it is an all-pervading spirit, or attitude. It is in this sense that one must see bilingualism as an Alcan reality throughout Quebec. This reality has been with the Company ever since it started operating in Quebec, and it has been increasingly conspicuous over the last twenty-five years.

Alcan employees know they can work exclusively in French at several Quebec locations. They know also that their labor unions negotiate agreements in French and that the French version of these agreements enjoys priority. Some agreements are not even translated into English. As a result of this and other circumstances, job description and evaluation for most employees are set out in French. In fact, Company and Labor representatives devoted ten years to this common task.

More and more, at Alcan's Quebec locations, meetings are held almost exclusively in French even if unilingual Anglo-Saxons participate. In other meetings, it may be unalloyed bilingualism, each speaking — not necessarily his mother tongue — but the language he feels like improving at that particular moment, his own or the other. At all those locations, work orders and service messages are bilingual or French only, as are also safety signs and notice board material.

Finally, employees at certain Alcan locations in Quebec well know that, when time is of the essence and only one language can be used, Alcan will use French.

But then, you may ask whether this tendency to Frenchify everything in Alcan's Quebec operations is not detrimental to English-speaking personnel.

Let's be frank. It would indeed be detrimental if the company did not put means to study French at the disposal of its English-speaking staff. It was pointedly explained a moment ago that these people are encouraged to become bilingual, since it may help them get ahead, at least in Quebec.

Naturally, if an executive who holds a top position in the Alcan group in Britain is transferred to a Quebec location at age 55, for instance, he may not instinctively want to start learning a new language at his age. Bilingualism is most useful among people who are forty or younger. Still, it is interesting to see white-haired gentlemen, burdened with heavy responsibilities, begin to study French at an age when we all know such a mental exertion is strenuous, especially when bilingualism is no more a requirement for promotion, a mere ten years or so from retirement.

I could name several English Canadian works managers and department heads who made it a point to study French and look for all kinds of opportunities to try it on their French-speaking colleagues. This yen to speak French never resulted in top management branding them as off-beat, because Alcan, as an organization, just doesn't think that way. And this, again, is a proof that bilingualism, with Alcan, is a way of life in Quebec. French Canadians improve their English and the latter improve their French. A good many perfectly bilingual French Canadians have held or now hold key posts with Alcan in foreign lands. For instance, for a few years, the personnel manager in Guiana was a French Canadian. Today, he is a vice-president.

One of the first French Canadian engineers hired by Alcan at Arvida, in 1926, later became a works manager. Today he is retired — so to speak, as he is now the general manager of C.O.S.E., a management training organization which Alcan helped launch several years ago.

In 1935, as the Depression was slowly rolling out of its deepest trough, Alcan resumed recruiting university graduates to strengthen its middle management. The company hired four engineers. But the president insisted that two of the four be French Canadians. Well, one of the two is now vice-president. The other one, after a fruitful career with Alcan, has joined the University of Montreal.


Generally speaking, in Quebec, it is not easy to land a promising staff position in an English-language corporation if one does not speak English. Not knowing English is a handicap.

So far as Alcan is concerned, the handicap is only temporary. The company has confidence in its executive trainees even if their English is poor. Its attitude is that if a young graduate is ambitious he will take the steps required to get ahead, and one of them, clearly, is to speak and write English just about as well as French. What I wish to stress here is that our company blackballs no one because of an insufficient knowledge of English.

Same as many another large corporations, Alcan goes to universities and technological institutes to recruit personnel. My latest information in this area is that from forty to forty-five per cent of all Canadian university graduates Alcan has been recruiting in recent years are French Canadians.

Of course, you just wouldn't believe me if I said that nobody in Alcan is lukewarm towards bilingualism. The opposite would be incredible. Whether we like it or not there will always be backward people on both sides of the linguistic fence. But there is a whole of a difference between a few individuals and a corporation which has invested about three quarters of a billion dollars in Quebec, where it employs some twelve thousand people. And in any case, as we have seen already, Alcan's policy is to adapt itself to its environments.

Such factors must be considered with a cool head. In business, as we all know, it pays to be realistic. For Alcan, fostering bilingualism among its Quebec personnel is the businesslike thing to do. Our company plays no favourites. As a business organization it cannot afford to. Its policy is simply that to operate in Quebec it must be as bilingual as the North American business realities make it possible to be.

Alcan had such an attitude more than twenty-five years ago, a long time before the political bickerings of recent years, and a long time before there was so much talk about introducing more French in business relationships inside Quebec.

If you look at Alcan's annual report there is one valuable asset that is not expressed in figures — and that is its reputation, its reputation in Quebec and throughout the world where, thoroughly integrated to its various environments, it never becomes a harmful foreign body in the social anatomy.


If you assume that Alcan worries about the quality of its French you are entirely right, because international French is the only variety it strives to master. Right here in Quebec, the company goes along with all movements aimed at improving spoken and written French.

This, in fact, entails hazards. You, as newspapermen, know this. Did you ever try to find an expression that will satisfy at least two linguists ? A term that, having satisfied two linguists, will also be okayed by accountants, sociologists in personnel, economists, engineers, foremen and employees ? Frankly speaking, when you venture into the jungle of semantics, you live dangerously. There are days when our plant paper editors feel they jeopardize their life expectancy by trying to please everybody. To them, jumping aboard a satellite aimed at the moon would look much less frightening.

But isn't there a bit of adventure in all jobs ?

So, to sum up : bilingual communications in industry — can it be achieved ? It most certainly can, according to the case study of Alcan. And I was not asked to study other companies. Each of you, using Alcan as a benchmark, is now in a position to make comparisons with the organisations he knows best,

Cet article est une reproduction dune conférence prononcée au colloque de « La communication bilingue dans l'industrie »,organisé par l'Association canadienne des rédacteurs de publications d'entreprises (section du Quebec), Hôtel Bonaventure Montréal, le 20 mars 1968.