Accueil » 20-3 ( 1965) » Les rapports linguistiques à l’Hydro-Québec

Les rapports linguistiques à l’Hydro-Québec

Roger Chartier


Dans cet article l'auteur fait état des résultats d'une recherche, entreprise par le Département de sociologie de l’Université de Montréal, portant sur les rapports linguistiques à l’Hydro-Québec. Après une analyse de la composition du groupe de langue française et du groupe de langue anglaise au niveau de la direction et de la maîtrise avant et après la nationalisation, l’auteur présente les initiatives entreprises à la suite de cette recherche.


Language Relations in Hydro-Québec

The second phase of the nationalization of the private electric power companies in the Province of Quebec was set in motion on May 1st 1963. Hydro-Quebec not only more than doubled its personnel but also enlarged its territory, until then largely centered in greater Montreal, to the dimensions of the whole Province. But for this state owned enterprise, the recent nationalization has meant much more a change in its nature than a change in its dimensions. In a very short time, it had to give itself a new interpretation, under all aspects, and readapt itself to constantly changing situations. In short, most of the measures taken by this large public enterprise in the last two years originate from nationalization.

It is symptomatic, in such a context of total reorganization, that hardly more than a month after the official nationalization, the Quebec Hydroelectric Commission should have asked the Department of Sociology of the University of Montreal to conduct a survey on the language relations among its personnel and more particularly among its middle and top management, comprising an executive personnel numbering 312 and a supervisory personnel of 1,510.

Following a thorough study of the structures of Hydro-Quebec and its subsidiaries, numerous and lengthy interviews with its personnel as well as the compilation of comprehensive statistical data, the sociologists Jacques Brazeau and Jacques Dofny submitted, in May 1964, an « exploratory » report on « Communications within Hydro-Quebec from a language point of view ».

The object of this paper is to sum up the essential elements of the report ; points covered in this résumé were discussed with the authors of the report, a first summary of which was made by Mr. André Thibault, a sociologist employed by Hydro-Quebec.


It will no doubt be useful, for a good comprehension of the language situation at Hydro-Quebec, to review a few historical facts. When in 1944, the corner stone of the structure of a state owned public service of electricity was laid by nationalizing the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Co. Ltd., and the Beauharnois Power Company, the majority of the executive and technical personnel was English speaking and English was the language of communication. At that time, the French-speaking Universities were producing very few engineers, and this was particularly true in the fields of mechanics and electricity. Moreover, existing traditions in recruiting and acceptance of a given language in internal communications were just as important factors as technical training in assigning members of each ethnic groups to respective tasks within the enterprise,

The first phase of the nationalization was slow in changing the language of communication and the ethnical composition of the executive personnel. The first French-Canadians to rise to this level of management were trained by English-speaking executives and, forcibly, spoke the only language which these executives could use. And the use of French as much as English came gradually with the rise of more French-speaking employees to the level of management, until French was in greater use than English. The remarkable headway made in the development of dams, electric power plants and substations during the fifties on the one hand and the increasingly rapid number of French-speaking electrical and mechanical engineers on the other hand, were at the origin of this transformation as well as the overall growth of the enterprise, the rate of growth being far beyond the capabilities of absorption of the English executive personnel. These ethnical changes produced mainly French-speaking language zones which are constantly gaining ground with respect to the English-speaking sectors. In the early sixties, Hydro-Quebec decided to act as its own general constructor for most of its dams, power plants and transmission lines as was the case at Carillon, Manicouagan, Outardes and other sites. Accordingly, French became the official language first on construction sites, and than at its Head office.

The second phase of the nationalization, on the other hand, has introduced into this language situation, at the managerial level, elements differing in ethnical composition and in work methods. This is very true in the case of Gatineau Power Company, and that of Northern Quebec Power and somewhat less true in the case of Shawinigan Water and Power and that of Southern Canada Power ; Quebec Power, on the other hand, is almost entirely French speaking ; and, as for both Lower Saint Lawrence Power Corporation and Saguenay Electric, French is the only language used at the management level with which we are dealing here. The net result then, following the second phase of the nationalization, is that French is the predominant language : this new situation must be analysed and, possibly, requires a language policy more sharply defined than that of the old laissez-faire tradition.


Such a policy can be strictly utilitarian and pragmatic, entirely devoid of any ideology of cultural conquest or emotional nationalism ; the enterprise must, for purely practical reasons, guarantee the efficiency of its operations by smooth communications. However, one cannot deny the fact that Hydro-Quebec, small as it may be, if looked upon on a provincial basis, does occupy a privileged position in the context of Quebec taken as a whole. The problem of language communication at Hydro-Quebec reaches far beyond the structures of the enterprise. Can this problem be effectively dissociated from the technical and economical world to which Hydro-Quebec belongs ? For, one must not forget that the members of each of the two ethnic groups are bound by attitudes and socio-cultural objectives in larger context with Hydro-Quebec being a privileged field of application.

A language policy for the enterprise can only be appraised from several angles ; lacking the necessary amount of time I shall only enumerate these, so as to draw your attention to the complexity of the problem.

1. From the technical point of view, what are the imperatives which will impose the use of what language in such and such a sector? The enterprise, as we have seen, draws much from the outside and produces for the outside : what then will be the modalities and the frequency of each language in external communications ?

2. The « technical imperatives » are the results of value judgments of personal choice on more general questions, of a search for an equilibrium, of conflicts of interests and of struggle for power. In other words, any modification to a given language policy has a direct effect on established positions and acquired rights according to the ethnic sector concerned.

3. Some choices, easily justified from a technical point of view, bear the mark of a certain vision of the future ; thus, overall nationalization being a fait accompli, resistance to the French language becomes on the part of the English-Canadian executive who wishes to pursue his career at Hydro-Quebec, meaningless and without justification.

4. Finally, the successful implementation of a language policy is wholly conditioned by the proper choice of the important sectors which from a strategic point of view are most liable to this successful implementation. This successful implementation depends on the need and the desire expressed by each individual.


Before establishing a language policy at Hydro-Quebec a certain amount of information had to be known. Some statistical data had to be collected, the numerical dimensions of the problem of the contact of two languages had to be estimated and the geographical limits of the principal sectors of difficulty had to be established. All this had to be accomplished at both the executive and supervisory levels, in Hydro-Quebec and in each one of its subsidiaries, and in all departments therein. Various tables of statistics will be found on the last three pages of this paper. At this stage, I will only discuss the more revealing aspects of these statistics.

In the original Hydro-Quebec, that is prior to May 1st 1963, management (executive and supervisory personnel) was 86% French speaking (executive, 72%; supervisory, 88%). These percentages have been somewhat modified by the nationalization. In the Hydro-Quebec of today, that is, on a provincial basis, 77% of the managerial personnel is French speaking, hence, a decrease of 9% ; as for the executive personnel, the percentage has dropped from 72% to 53% ; and in the case of supervisory personnel, from 88% to 82%. Thus, it is principally at the executive level that a regression in the predominance of French-speaking personnel following nationalization can be observed. At this level, French predominance has passed from a stage of a comfortable numerical advantage to that of simply nominal majority.

If one now effects a breakdown of the data found in the tables according to each company, one discovers a group of situations clearly differentiated one from the other. If we now look at the French sectors on a provincial scale, we find that at the level of management in which we are interested, there are three companies with percentages comparing favourably with the old Hydro-Quebec which was 86% French speaking : these are Lower St. Lawrence Power Corporation and Saguenay Electric where this proportion is 100% and Quebec Power which is 93% French speaking. The other four companies constitute a sector which is dominated by the English element at the executive level, but where the French element is predominant at the supervisory level (although somewhat less predominant than in the other four companies). Thus, Shawinigan is 62% French (executive level, 28%) (supervisory level, 71%) ; Southern Canada Power, 60% (executive level 45%, supervisory 66%) ; Gatineau Power, 60% (executive 45%, supervisory 66%); Gatineau Power, 57% (executive 10%, supervisory 63%); and finally Northern Quebec Power is 45% French speaking (executive 0% and supervisory, 56%).

If we now turn to operations, provincial scale, we arrive at conclusions very similar to that above. On the one hand, one finds that in the engineering departments, 33 1/3% of the executives and 70% of the supervisors are French speaking. On the other hand, in the Personnel departments, these proportions are respectively 84% and more than 90%. In the other departments, French speaking elements have a slight majority among the executives while the same elements constitute more than 4/5 of the supervisory personnel.

These classifications based on the language spoken according to geographical areas and sphere of activity are not without relationship with classifications based on the concept of « generation ». On the whole, more French-speaking elements were recruited after 1945 than prior to this date ; the opposite is true as far as English-speaking elements are concerned. Similarly, in the predominantly French-speaking companies, including the old Hydro-Quebec, 3/4 of the managerial personnel joined after 1945, while this proportion is less than 50% in companies where management is predominantly English speaking. The French elements have thus profited from both factors of time and change while the English elements have been favoured with much stability.

As far as formal education of the managerial personnel is concerned, each group compares equally with the other, independently of the language spoken. On the whole, 36% of this personnel holds a university degree ( 65% of the executive personnel, 30% of the supervisory personnel). Finally, among the English-speaking elements of both the executive and supervisory levels of Hydro-Quebec taken on a provincial scale, 200 have declared that they speak very little or no French at all, another 200, fairly well and 27, fluently. In the French sector (that is the old Hydro-Quebec and the three predominantly French companies) the majority of the English elements claim to speak French fairly well. In the English sector, the corresponding majority has declared that it speaks little or no French ; this majority is larger at the executive level than at the supervisory level.


The sociologists, using an unstructured interview technique, endeavoured to go beyond their statistical data and discover the opinions and attitudes of the managerial personnel towards the problems of languages in Hydro-Quebec, on a provincial basis.

Beyond the « physical » dimensions of the problem of languages at Hydro-Quebec, one finds individual human beings, with human sensitivity and emotions, who define this problem in terms of their own attitudes, their own interests and their own objectives. The enquirers directed their efforts in view of gathering opinions regarding the value of each language in the prominently industrial world of the North American context of today, particularly in the electrical field. On the whole, the managerial personnel of the old Hydro-Quebec and of the predominantly French-speaking companies that are witnessing intensive efforts in the last few years to give the French language its proper place in technical and administrative fields, think that it is just as possible and advantageous to use French as English for language communications in daily business operations. Many of them see an even greater advantage, from the strict point of view of efficiency in using the language of the majority. On the other hand, many among the English-speaking personnel (and some French-speaking elements who have pursued their career in companies predominantly English speaking) of subsidiaries such as Shawinigan Water and Power, Southern Canada Power, Gatineau Power and Northern Quebec Power rather think that English is decidedly the only language used in industry and commerce in North America, and therefore the efforts to re-introduce the use of French in the same sectors are utopic and can only lead to an undesirable situation ; according to some, it is impossible to re-introduce the use of French among technicians, even as a language of internal communications, bearing in mind overall external context.

As for the language of external communications all agree that it should be the one used by the customer and in the case of large suppliers of machinery and materials, Hydro-Quebec will have to use the English language for some time to come. Some people therefore insist on the need of Hydro-Quebec, on a provincial basis, to employ and recruit English-speaking employees, or employees that are bilingual, to treat in a fair manner employees whose mother tongue is English, and even appoint an English-speaking Commissioner.

Many of those interviewed gave their own definition of bilingualism, insisting on many ways of applying it and its usefulness to the whole of Hydro-Quebec, on the verge of becoming exclusively French speaking. Idealistically, it would be reading, writing, understanding and speaking both languages fairly well, in this order of progression and difficulty. Before reaching this stage, however, our wish is that is that everyone could at least read and understand the two languages, so that it would be possible for everyone to speak or write in the language he knows best, with the assurance of being understood by a person of the other tongue, who, in turn, can act in the same manner.

Members of both ethnical groups, at the management level and with regards to the integration of Hydro-Quebec subsidiaries, voiced their opinions with all frankness. Among many English-speaking employees coming from the subsidiaries, the experts noted a strong feeling of insecurity before an uncertain future.

They showed a certain anxiety at the thought that the personality of their original privately owned company would be dissolved in an heartless state controlled company or its efficiency lost in the vastness of a Public Corporation. They were afraid of political interference, unfair distinctions, retaliations ; they feared the loss of acquired rights ; they were afraid of becoming mere official numbers or of entering into a misalliance.

On the other hand, many French-speaking employees belonging to the same subsidiaries expressed a feeling of satisfaction and hope following the nationalization. These employees believe that in a predominant French-speaking public service, their chances of advancement have been greatly increased. It should also be mentioned that certain French-speaking elements of the old Hydro-Quebec fear that the integration will bring in new competitors, their avenues of promotion having seemed until then free from any opposition.


The experts advocated a well defined language policy for the whole of Hydro-Quebec in order to bring to perfection, give form to and accelerate the natural process described above by removing any irritating elements from it. They foresaw the immediate and unchalenged priority of the French language in the French sectors of the old Hydro-Quebec, Saguenay Electric, Quebec Power and the Lower Saint Lawrence Power Corporation without an exclusion of English where the latter would be required in external communications. For the English sector (Shawinigan, Southern, Gatineau and Northern) the experts foresaw an intermediate and transitory phase of systematic bilingualism ; knowledge of French as a condition of employment, comprehensive translation services, a marked preference for memos and reports written in French and finally, transfers of personnel from one region to the other so as to enhance the knowledge of French, now in more general use. But above all, the sociologists recommended accelerated French language courses for the English speaking managerial personnel, so as to reach a minimum level of bilingualism which would allow every one to express himself in his native tongue with the hope of being understood by everyone.

As early as last September in greater Montreal and in October for the Hull region the Quebec Hydroelectric Commission approved French « intra-muros » courses using the excellent method known as « Voix et Images de France ». This method was conceived by « le Centre de recherches et de diffusion du français de Saint-Cloud », in France. The Commission engaged the best teachers from this Institute, it approved the necessary expenditures to make certain that the « students » would be provided with the best teaching aids and find themselves in the most favourable atmosphere.

Absolutely everyone of the English-speaking administrators willingly accepted the invitation of the Commission which was formulated in terms conveying the least amount of obligation.

In Montreal, 171 students, from the old Hydro-Quebec, from Shawinigan Water and Power particularly as well as from Southern Canada Power have already completed or are attending either the elementary course of 300 hours or one of the two intermediate courses of 90 and 60 hours, according to their needs ; a more advanced course will be offered in due course for those who express either the need or the desire for such a course. In Hull, one administrator submitted a written request to the effect that he and his colleagues should be granted the same opportunity. He wrote :

« It is obvious from official pronouncements made by Hydro-Quebec and my observations of the working of committees and discussions that a thorough knowledge of the French language is essential for efficient conduct of business within Hydro-Quebec and its affiliates. It is also obvious that it would not be possible for anyone who is not familiar with French to receive promotions that his other abilities might entitle him to. If the Gatineau Power Company employees are not provided with the same opportunities for learning the French language, they will be at a disadvantage compared to other Hydro-Quebec and affiliated employees. »

Along with his colleagues, he has been given the opportunity, today 37 executives from that region have attended or are attending an accelerated 30-week course at the rate of 28 hours per week. In Shawinigan, 27 executives of the Shawinigan Water and Power Company will soon be taking the same course. Various interviews have revealed the enthousiasm of the students and the remarkable results which the Saint-Cloud method used by three full time teachers has on the students' ability to express themselves almost fluently in French and this without any false embarrassment.

Another event has taken place, which may have a considerable influence on the language situation. Hydro-Quebec has in effect proceeded with a fundamental administrative and geographical reorganization of its structures which will in the near future and for all practical purposes, dislocate the social groups which felt a particular attachment to either the old Hydro-Quebec or to one of its subsidiaries by replacing them with new groups constituted on a more rational geographical basis. The assignment of personnel to these new regional units is not yet completed. It will certainly influence the proportion of members from each ethnic groups that will be called upon to work together. This will provide an opportunity for observations, which from a strategic point of view will be as interesting as they will be important.


The statistical part of the report has permitted the collecting and indexing — for future use in a computer — of much information on employees of the managerial levels throughout the province ; we have not yet made full use of all this information. A comprehensive analysis of all this data would no doubt reveal much valuable knowledge of the factors which may have influenced the careers of the managerial personnel, on the relations in the native tongue, levels of management and department and university degrees ; between the native tongue and educational status, level in the hierarchy and seniority ; between the native tongue and the degree of competence and authority, and so on.

The information collected could help Hydro-Quebec assess the composition of its management in the years to come and establish policies in matters pertaining to the recruiting and the promotion of the future members of management using as a basis the data collected and the objectives it has in mind.

It would also be very useful to evaluate the practical results of the French courses, not only from a language point of view but also from that of the changes in attitudes towards the French element and its culture. Are former students making a wider use of French in daily tasks, and to what degree of efficiency ; are they receiving adequate support from the French-speaking elements ? Have they modifîed their opinion that the use of French is utopic in a predominantly English-speaking continent ?

It would also be helpful to relate these various aspects of the problem to the other components of a global communications policy within the enterprise,

In conclusion, the chances of success, or failure of the efforts presently being made to integrate Hydro-Quebec on a provincial basis, offer a theme for very interesting sociological research. Such an opportunity to analyse in such a clear cut manner phenomena of social changes as complex as the situation under discussion, is indeed rare ; integrating of small and medium size companies into a large corporation, passing from the private field to the public domain, setting new limits to the structures, the administrative tasks and traditions and, finally, modifying cultural and ethnical relations in a context of profound internal disruption of an enterprise which is a vivid manifestation of formidable transformations which today are leaving their marks on the life and conscience of Quebec.