BUSINESS WATCH

The revival of Montreal

Peter C. Newman October 24 1983
BUSINESS WATCH

The revival of Montreal

Peter C. Newman October 24 1983

The revival of Montreal

BUSINESS WATCH

Peter C. Newman

Now that the Parti Québécois is abandoning its scorched-earth economic policies, French Canada’s largest city is gathering some interesting new energies. Despite the exodus of its best and brightest—estimated at 130,000 over the past decade— Montreal can no longer be dismissed as Canada’s Milwaukee, a branch-plant town with little future.

As a financial centre, Montreal is dead forever. Nothing drove the last nail in its coffin more surely than the move, last May, of Bill Mulholland, the Bank of Montreal chairman, to Georgetown, Ont., so he could be closer to his bank’s decision-making computers in downtown Toronto. That shift of economic clout westward began half a century ago, and it has been marked by some easily verifiable stages: in 1947, the Toronto Stock Exchange first surpassed the Montreal Stock Exchange in the value of annual transactions and, four years later, the Montreal Exchange ignominiously slipped to third place behind the upstart Vancouver market.

Most old-family English Montrealers projected two contrary reactions to the declining state in which they found themselves: slight surprise and considerable relief. They had always thought the rest of Canada was a bore. It seemed relaxing, somehow, to be able to sink back into the elegance of times past and go right on believing that Toronto was a place where only vulgar money-managers wanted to live, and that what existed west of there was something no civilized person would even consider.

No matter who held power at Quebec City in the past, Quebec’s Anglos had always managed to negotiate a separate peace, trading off their political support for economic dispensations of various kinds—safe in the knowledge that they were needed, if not loved. But with René Lévesque and his Parti Québécois categorically rejecting future ties with Canada on alternate Wednesdays, the province’s mobile upper middle class decided to move out. Even if they didn’t go themselves, they sent their kids and mortgages to Toronto, opened up safety deposit boxes in Vermont and nervously began leafing through Phoenix and Nassau telephone books.

What has quietly been happening ever since is that the entrepreneurial vacuum they created has been filled by a new breed of self-confident FrenchCanadian MBAs. They are totally at

home, not merely inside the Anglodominated Canadian business world, but in the international marketplace.

If that new group has a natural leader, he is André Bisson, an MBA twice over (Laval and Harvard) who holds the distinction of having been offered both the finance portfolio in the former Bourassa administration and the key post of deputy finance minister in the Lévesque government.

Currently a senior vice-president of the Bank of Nova Scotia, he operates at the very centre of Montreal’s new French elite and is a director of half a dozen important francophone institu-

tions, including le Conseil du Patronat du Québec, le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and the European Institute of Business Administration in Fontainebleau, France. As a banker he handles the PQ’s Eurodollar issues and was one of the major influences in persuading the French to build the huge $1.5-billion Péchiney aluminum smelter at Bécancour, Que. “For the first time,” he told Maclean's, “the MBAs in Quebec are

emerging as an important decisionmaking group. They tend to be pragmatic in their politics and recognize Canada as a broader and better base for their future activities than being limited to just Quebec. This tends to make them federalists and supporters of Robert Bourassa, though they have no illusions that any future Liberal government would become the voice of big business.

Bisson points out that Bourassa’s opportunistic brand of federalism may be suspect in the rest of Canada, but inside Quebec he is regarded as a strong proCanada supporter, particularly after his active part in the 1980 referendum. Along with most Montreal businessmen, Bisson sees the PQ becoming the Union Nationale of the 1980s—a conservative, rural-based movement making nationalistic noises to maintain a semblance of unity, but not going all the way. “Lévesque and, particularly, Parizeau have done a commendable job running the province’s finances,” he says. “The separatism movement arrived at the wrong time; it wouldn’t have been nearly so economically damaging had it not been accompanied by the recession. But fighting an election right now based on sovereignty would have a very low chance of success.”

Instead of bewailing its past, Montreal is beefing up its transportation infrastructure, creating a world-scale biomedical research centre, expanding its aerospace potential and searching for spin-off industries based on the province’s hydro and aluminum ingot surpluses. Jean Drapeau, the glorybound mayor who engineered Expo and the Olympics, may yet pull off the equally improbable coup of establishing Mirabel as an alternate airport for New York and northern New England.

Montreal’s biggest danger is that it may turn out to be Canada’s least bilingual city. With Ottawa pressing to turn the rest of Canada into a bilingual heaven, Montreal is becoming increasingly unilingual. The frequently bizarre provisions of Bill 101 continue to dominate its political landscape.

Significantly, when the PQ was negotiating the final terms for Bell’s $750million helicopter plant near Mirabel, Lévesque agreed to allow its American employees to send their children to English-language schools.

That may not be enough to change Quebec’s economic climate. But like Rome after the Caesars departed, Montreal isn’t dead yet.