The Nation’s Business

The needless agony of a besieged city

No longer a joyful metropolis, Montreal has become a place to escape from, a city on the brink of surrender

Peter C. Newman April 21 1997
The Nation’s Business

The needless agony of a besieged city

No longer a joyful metropolis, Montreal has become a place to escape from, a city on the brink of surrender

Peter C. Newman April 21 1997

The needless agony of a besieged city

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

Spent a rainy afternoon recently sitting with a friend of many years in a Montreal bistro, ruminating about the city we both love. He is one of those wonderfully bicultural Canadians, a highly influential power broker who prides himself on having prevented some of the worst excesses in the political wars that have raged between Quebec and Ottawa for three decades. Trusted by both sides yet beholden to neither, he was able, time and again, to resolve quarrels that threatened to escalate out of control.

It had been so easy, once. Many a federal-provincial crisis was resolved on the basis of the participants’ shared memories of a stimulating seminar at Laval, a casual summer encounter in Provence, or a mutual passion for minor French cheeses.

But that was before Lucien Bouchard, before the misty dreams of Quebec independence turned into a deadly endgame. Although Bouchard has managed to disarm a few hopeful federalists by appearing willing to compromise, those who are close to the action harbor no doubts that the separatist leader is merely playing for time. They believe Bouchard is lining up the essential strands of support for that moment when he becomes convinced a referendum vote is winnable, and will then pull the plug on Canada.

Knowing all this and more, my friend at the bistro felt bereft—as an elegant and learned man who had outlived his civility and his usefulness. “The situation is very serious, and I am speaking from a good information base,” he told me. “The way people are moving in the government of Quebec is to court confrontation at future strategic moments. We must recognize that nationalism in Quebec is a deeply rooted movement that will not go away, no matter what we do. My own inclination is to stop trying to woo the sovereigntists, and to instead facilitate their leaving so there isn’t irreversible damage inflicted on either side.”

In the days that followed, I encountered many similar laments. Instead of the joyful destination it once was, Montreal has become a place to escape from, a besieged city on the brink of surrender. Even in our bistro, on one of those formerly busy avenues that run downhill from Sherbrooke Street, people were trading apprehensions, nervously plotting escape routes for themselves, their families and their cash. The latest trend among the wealthy is to set up asset-protection trusts in overseas jurisdictions, not to escape taxes, but to have their fortunes safely tucked away, in case the newly independent Quebec Republic decides to tax private capital, or slaps on exchange controls to cut off the expected gush of currency outflows. One of the lawyers I interviewed, the most senior partner of one of the city’s most prestigious legal firms, expressed astonishment that the majority of his clients requesting such overseas protection are Québécois business leaders. (One reason may be that

No longer a joyful metropolis, Montreal has become a place to escape from, a city on the brink of surrender

most of the Anglo and Jewish money has already been evacuated.)

One of Montreal’s most dedicated pro-Canada activists is Jonathan Wener, who along with realtor Philip O’Brien, organized the giant, last-minute rally that saved the 1995 referendum, after the feds came close to bungling the country away. The head of Canderel Ltd., one of the city’s largest privately owned construction companies, Wener is preparing for the next round. “My kids are seventh-generation Canadians,” he says, “and I love this place. I’m constantly challenged to look for alternate corporate locations, but I’m holding on to the remnants of a fabulous place to live that is seriously decaying.” His company’s assets, which were up to $400 million in 1989, have been decimated. “There are no construction cranes on the Montreal skyline at the moment,” he gloomily observes.

“Our rally,” he recalls, “came out of the frustration that I felt that not enough of an effort had been made, that the No forces were slipping tremendously, and that there was need for dramatic action. It was an idea on a Friday, put into action on Monday, and executed four days later, the last weekday before the referendum. When I saw that number of people in that outpouring of emotion and the peacefulness in which it was all conducted, it made me very proud. What it initiated was an awful lot of grassroots movements to take control and start to have things happen. I don’t necessarily agree with the partitionists, but the logic flows: if Quebec is separable from Canada, then parts of Quebec should be separable as well. Maybe there should be a Bloc Montreal in the Quebec government.”

Would there be another rally, if there was another referendum? “Probably,” Wener says, “but it wouldn’t be the same. Muddling through isn’t going to work next time. Only something revolutionary, something out of the main political stream will do the trick. What I find so hard to accept is the meanness of spirit that the Bouchard government has shown by attacking people who were part of the rally. At one point I almost hoped they would charge me, because I certainly would have gone to jail over the issue as a matter of principle. ”

Wener has opened five new businesses since 1995, but none are real estate or construction oriented. ‘They’re mobile,” he says, “they can be run from anywhere.”

Meanwhile, Montreal is digging in for what most people here regard as the final confrontation: the referendum expected in 1999.1 leave my friend in the bistro and walk down Crescent Street, once a boulevard of clothes boutiques. The display window of a shuttered furniture store accurately conveys Montreal’s current discontent. Perched on the arm of a fine, taffeta-covered armchair, left behind by the proprietors of the abandoned shop, is a hand-lettered sign that reads: “Au revoir.”