Doing Business in Québec: Insights on Culture

By Arundati Dandapani, CMRP, Emerging Leaders Task Force Blog Curator, May 2017

When I worked for radio stations in Ottawa, I often investigated the consumer habits of my Québec neighbours in the National Capital Region (NCR). One difference that struck me about Québec listeners versus Ontario listeners was household composition and how this influenced purchase decisions, across various categories, whether in home furniture (patios and swimming pools) or grocery shopping, or even how often they dined out.

I knew Montreal a little, but my primary knowledge of this blue province stopped at the foothills of Gatineau. Across the Ottawa-Gatineau River, culture beats to a different drum. Visits to the Gatineau National Park included my trek to The Mackenzie King Estate where I witnessed the natural bounty of French Canada first-hand. Uber is barred in Quebec and the app froze each time I tried.

Before leaving the NCR for Toronto’s smoky pastures, I came across a book that helped to fill the gaps in my short glimpses of Québec culture. Québecers come from French culture, live in English society and have an American lifestyle, it suggested. This triangulated heritage influences key traits of the Québécois as consumers, businesspeople and citizens.

The Quebec Difference is explained in this Equation above in the book

It was not until I finished reading Cracking the Quebec CodeThe key to opening the hearts, minds and wallets of Quebecers that I got a “marketer’s” grasp on this region. Authored by Jean-Marc Léger, Jacques Nantel and Pierre Duhamel, this book draws on extensive longitudinal research and semiotic analyses from one of Canada’s oldest polling firms, Léger. The research methodology wheel below spotlights how Léger dissected Québec’s culture for consumer insights:

Québec’s Québecers and other demographics

Québecers and bon vivants Corina Bunu and Francois Tremblay attained the CMRP with me last year. Corinna is a business account manager at Desjardins, a credit cooperative invented in Québec, and the province’s largest employer with over 40,000 employees enabling workers and farmers to become more self-reliant by doing their own banking. Francois, after 15 years of working for eminent Canadian financial brands like Scotiabank and TD Bank, turned entrepreneurial.

Other peers have visited Montreal for New Year rave parties or to bungee-jump from terrific heights (a rite of passage in my networks), and highly recommend Montreal as their favourite getaway from old (fashioned) Québec (and older fashioned Ontario). Montreal is the vital cosmopolis of Québec and home to 87% of the province’s foreign-born population. If Montreal is the most multicultural and most British of Québec cities, Québec City is the most republican and most French of Québec cities.[1]

Outside of Montreal, Québec is 95% Francophone. Québec is not homogenous, and neither is Montreal, even if Montrealers reside in mostly mono-cultural neighbourhoods.[2] Half of Québec is clustered in Montreal, accounting for over 4 million of the province’s 8 million+ people. Anglo Québecers comprise 7.6% of Quebec and 17.4% of Montreal. 88.2% of Anglo Québecers are bilingual. 10% of Canada’s Aboriginals reside in Québec, accounting for 2% of Québec’s total population. If the three solitudes of Québec are its Francophones, Anglophones and the Indigenous people, the book suggests there is not much intermingling between these communities.[3] The province’s culture is cast into Montreal vs. rest of Québec, the epicentre of which is Québec City.

Québec is 2.5 times the geographical size of France, and the land is laced through with over a million waterbodies. Over three quarters of the French respondents surveyed (76%) believed that Québec culture is distinct from French culture, and over half of the French (56%) found Québec culture appealing. Anglo-Québecers (those not of pure-French stock but Anglican ancestry like Andrew Molson and even Pierre Elliot Trudeau) are hybrids of Francophone Québecers and Anglophones from the ROC, their survey responses falling between this spectrum on every issue.

So what is it about Canada’s second most populous province that demands a different approach to doing business than the ROC?

 

Seven Qualities of the Enterprising Québécois

Québecers differ from the Rest of Canada (ROC) for being:

  1. (committed to) JOIE DE VIVRE – Québecers spend more money on food, alcohol, and leisure than the Rest of Canada. Serious pleasure is at the core of the Québecer difference, and they tend to live in the moment more so than other Canadians. Québecers love to have fun, and hate to suffer, and thus they pay the most in Canada for their public healthcare system, but they also pay the most for private health care!

 

  1. EASYGOING – Québecers are consensus builders, driven by simplicity, common-sense and a dislike for quarrels. Desjardins’ workplace culture has been described by former president Monique Leroux as a “democracy that represents Québec’s social fabric”.[4] Companies like Jean Coutu, Metro, IGA and RONA are also built around consensus, a value etched in the DNA of Quebecers. This consensus-orientation has its pitfalls: Québecers are ill-reputed for debating because they can come off as attacking individuals more than ideas. Gilles Parnt, radio host for 99.3 in Québec City explains, “That’s because we don’t have the vocabulary to defend ourselves and hold a lively conversation, much less a debate.”[5]

 

  1. NON-COMMITTAL – When the heart of a nation was dangling in its throat, the Québec Referendum revealed an uncanny trait of the Québécois – to defer, detach or be non-committal. “Québecers know what they don’t want, but they don’t really know what they do want… And while they have a hard time saying yes, they find it just as difficult to say no… For Québecers, there is an urgent need… to wait.” Such indecision or non-commitment is too common in Québec, according to the book.

 

  1. VICTIM – This negative adjective comes from a semiotic combination of the Québécois humility, modesty, fatalism, fear of risk and also a critical attitude towards the government, making Québecers quick to shirk any blame.[6] This comes from a history of undoings under the shaft of a conservative and strict Catholic clergy for a century. Québecers tend to move quickly from American optimism to French fatalism. Warier of bargains than the ROC, Québecers are the biggest buyers of life insurance, more risk-averse and cautious, and strive for financial stability. “In Québec, bankruptcy is equivalent to social suicide, while in the United States, and particularly California, bankruptcy is a kind of training,” said Jevto Deijer, former head of IKEA in France.[7]

 

  1. VILLAGERS – Québec is a close-knit society woven in “mutual assistance, solidarity and sharing.” Québecers are simple, traditional, country people (more than ROC) identifying more with their region or town than the province or nation. They are rarely interested in international or even national news or events. What’s “Made in Québec” resonates better with Québec audiences and Québec created TV and radio programming earns more market share among locals than some very popular American shows.[8] The popularity of this Rousse de Molson (red beer) ad featuring local legend Rose La Poune Ouellette reflects such loyalties. Homegrown celebrities like Céline Dion are revered.

 

  1. CREATIVE – Québécois creativity is well-demonstrated by their prolific inventions and entrepreneurial drive. Among the top fifteen inventions by Quebecers are the AM radio, the telephone handset, peanut butter, the snow blower, snowmobile, and free home delivery of chicken. This “French creativity driven by North American efficiency” extends beyond arts and culture or fashion, and into gaming, multimedia, and business for Québecers. Québec Studios have created extremely popular global games like Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft), Tomb Raider (Eidos), Halo (Behaviour Interactive), and Batman: Arkham City (Warner Bros Games). Québecers are business creators, even if their marketing strategy leaves much to be seen. [9]

 

  1. PROUD – Québecers believe in the preservation of their cultural and linguistic identities, especially the French language and heritage. Proud of their province, proud of their culture, their appearance, children, homes and identities, other sources of pride include: Hydro-Québec, free public health care, welcoming of immigrants, respect for diversity, daycare system, environmental protection, computer industry, wealth distribution and their entrepreneurial nature. Today’s greatest source of pride for Québecers is their successful entrepreneurs and global export of talent from SMEs. The intention to “start-up” is significantly higher in Québec than the Rest of Canada. Alex Tailleffer, founder and brainchild of eco-friendly Teo Taxis, first envisioned making all of Montreal’s taxis electric.

 

While the Québécois are distinct, they mirror national traits like indecision. Michael Novak, executive VP of Québéc construction giant SNC-Lavalin calls it the “Canada Syndrome”. Canada has been called a nation of “fence-sitters” with a “watered down identity” eschewing boldness in favour of blandness, where the only form of discrimination allowed is “anti-Americanism,” but rather—a country that defines itself by what it isn’t![10] Québec although self-aware, exhibits similar indecision, an awareness of what it’s not, and an inward-looking contentment that matches the nation’s (lack of) plan to market—mentioned earlier.

Québecers then are more creative, entrepreneurial, flexible, tolerant, pleasure-seeking and peaceable. Their appetite for mergers and acquisitions beats English Canada by a ratio of three-to-one.[11] “Their roots contain a tangled mix of Latin passion, American will, English composure and Nordic tenacity” that positions them better for global success.

Valley of the St. Lawrence River meeting the St.Charles River in Québec City.[12]

Conclusion: Towards a stronger, prosperous Québec

Québec models unity in diversity, a distinct provincial identity of many self-aware solitudes. Here’s a province from the trenches of history breaking out of its bubble with irrepressible tech and entrepreneurial energy, keeping the Québec story interesting to observers in and outside Canada. Individuals like Francois are living examples of this energy and Corina manages this dynamism in her workplace daily.

A Canadian ex-classmate warned me against going to Québec for any 150th birthday pride! (I wasn’t). Corina instead suggested I visit her on June 24th for St. Jean Baptiste Day, Québec’s National Holiday. Sounds like a trip that needs no pitching, really.

Arundati Dandapani, CMRP is a millennial market researcher and bibliophile.

For the microsite of “Cracking the Quebec Code: The Seven Keys to Understanding Québec,” please click here.


[1] Leger, Jean –Marc, Nantel Jacques, and Duhamel, Pierre. “Cracking the Quebec Code: The 7 keys to understanding Quebecers”. Montreal: Juniper Publishing, 2016.

[2] Hiebert, Daniel. “Ethnocultural Minority Enclaves in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver,” IRPP Study, No. 52 August 2015, Available online at: http://irpp.org/wp-content/

[3] Leger, Jean –Marc, Nantel Jacques, and Duhamel, Pierre. “Cracking the Quebec Code: The 7 keys to understanding Quebecers”. Montreal: Juniper Publishing, 2016.

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] “We have been rendered irresponsible by the government” said Gilbert Rozon, president of Just For Laughs, on the Québecers’ tendency to shirk blame, in the book.

[7] Leger, Jean –Marc, Nantel Jacques, and Duhamel, Pierre. “Cracking the Quebec Code: The 7 keys to understanding Quebecers”. Montreal: Juniper Publishing, 2016.

[8] Numeris, “Top programs—Total Canada (English) March 7- March 13, 2016.” http://assts.numeris.ca/Downloads/7%20mars%202016%20au%2013%20mars%202016%20(National).pdf

[9] David Crête. ”Innover, pas si simple que ça !” La Presse+ (digital edition), April 10, 2016.

[10]Mandel-Campbell, Andrea. “Why Mexicans don’t drink Molson: Rescuing Canadian Business from the Suds of Global Obscurity”. Vancouver: Doug & McIntyre, 2007.

[11] According to the Ministere de l’Economie, de la Scince et d l’Innovation, only 85 Quebec companies have been bought by non-Quebec companies since 2010, with an average value of $400 million, in comparison to the 258 non-Quebec companies that have been bought by Quebec companies, worth an average of $523 million.

[12] Québec City. Digital image. Maxwell Mplore. Google, n.d. Web. 17 May 2017.