What’s so surprising about Quebec’s Anglo exodus? They’re just following their money

Peter C. Newman April 4 1977

What’s so surprising about Quebec’s Anglo exodus? They’re just following their money

Peter C. Newman April 4 1977

What’s so surprising about Quebec’s Anglo exodus? They’re just following their money

Peter C. Newman

The real estate broker, a sullen, exasperated man with a bartender’s face and too much Brylcreem in his hair, had finished showing a house on Wood Avenue in lower Westmount recently, when his prospective client, an American engineer just transferred to Montreal, said: “This place doesn’t really suit me. But I like the street. What else have you got?” The salesman spread out his hands in a gesture of mock ecstasy, cracked a hard smile, and replied: “Hell, every house on this street is available. The only reason there aren’t more signs out is people are afraid that would drag prices down even further. So take your pick.”

The exodus has started. Much of nonFrench Montreal is up for sale.

No matter who has held power at Quebec City in the past, the Anglos have always managed to negotiate a separate peace. They traded off their political support for economic dispensations of various kinds and magnitudes, safe in the knowledge that they were needed, if not loved. But with René Lévesque categorically rejecting future ties with Canada on alternate Wednesdays, some of the province’s mobile upper middle class has started to make plans for moving out. Guy Joron, one of the PQ’S militant ministers, calls the exodus “nothing less than a form of surrender. Already, a vacuum has set in at the decision-making level in the economy, as if part of the battlefield is conceded to us before we have even tried to occupy it.”

Signs of the Anglos’ sombre mood of acquiescenceare everywhere, the currency of their lives being spent with a fright and abandon that belie the “muddling through” tradition of their upbringing. Even the majority who are at least temporarily staying on areiregisteringsome mortgages in Toronto, sending their stock certificates to Vermont and nervously leafing through Tulsa telephone books.

Most of the large accumulations of private wealth have been moving out for some time. The Molsons have long since transferred their headquarters to Toronto; the Websters are investing heavily outside Quebec; even the Simard family (French Canada’s richest clan) has moved most of its assets into the tax havens of the Bahamas and the oil refineries of Corpus Christi in Texas (through a holding company called Simcor).

Texaco Canada, IAC and most of the city’s other large employers including the Bank of Montreal and the Royal have moved key head office operations away from Montreal in the past five years. Two

of the largest headquarters remaining in place are Canadian Pacific and Bell Canada. Their chief executive officers, Ian Sinclair and Jean de Grandpré, come to work every morning. But the main symbolic asset that remains in the province is their desk. Less than 10% of CP’S huge five-billiondollar empire is still within Quebec’s borders. Bell has moved many of its important operations to Toronto and its Quebec business is down drastically because so few new telephones are being connected.

Some of the really forward looking companies are bypassing Toronto by making provisions to operate out o' Calgary. Royal Trust, originally chartered in Quebec, for example, recently incorporated its Canadian operation under an Alberta address. Harold Milavsky, president of Trizec, the huge real estate company that owns Place Ville Marie, Montreal’s largest office building, works out of Calgary.

Few of the factories that remain in the province are being expanded. “We just won’t commit any more investment dollars until we know what the rules of the game are going to be,” says a Toronto-based director of several large conglomerates with Quebec operations. “Right now, we’re even cutting down our maintenance costs, hardly changing burnt-out light bulbs. It’s not just the PQ’S new directives on language and culture that worry us, but Quebec’s possible revision of its tax system, its potential new relations with GATT, currency

regulations and the whole gamut of decisions that together make up the economic climate in which we’ll have to operate.”

The real source of the businessmen’s sense of panic is not so much the PQ’S pledge to split away from Canada but the nature of the party’s economic aims which, they fear, would turn Quebec into a kind of sub-Arctic Caribbean island—its industries hobbled by enforced “local” partnerships, with decisions having to be made not according to the free play of market forces but the quixotic dictates of Quebec nationalism. At the same time, they claim Lévesque has elevated the vague, 200-yearold notion of a French nation on the North American continent from the wispy status of a people’s spiritual sustenance to the primordial sanction of blood (race). The one way for the PQ Premier to escape his government’s fiscal problems is to divert attention from Quebec’s economic difficulties by launching a struggle based on racial purity.

Lévesque and his separatists are getting most of the blame for the decline in Montreal’s economic importance. But election of the Parti Québécois merely accelerated a process that dates back more than 40 years, when the Toronto money men took over financing of the country’s burgeoning mining industry through their Wall Street connections, while the old family Montreal investment houses continued to deal in blue chip equities with the blue bloods of Boston and London. St. James Street, which was a symbol of their power, is now all but deserted, and the old Montreal Stock Exchange has been turned into a theatre.

Unfortunately, private investment is drying upjust at a time when Lévesque has been unable to prime the provincial economy because his own treasury is facing a growing deficit. It’s this state of the province’s impending fiscal crisis that provides the departing Anglos with a touch of gallows humor. A story going the rounds in Westmount these days concerns Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau bursting into Premier Lévesque’s office to report some good news and some bad news: “I’ll give you the good news first,” he says. “Even though they have assets in Quebec worth $100 million, Johns-Manville have decided to sell the province their asbestos holdings for only one million dollars.”

“That’s great!” Lévesque replies, “just the kind of boost we need. Now, what’s the bad news?”

“They insist we pay them a thousand dollars in cash as a deposit.”