COVER

A MIRROR ON A PROVINCE

MONTREAL’S ECONOMY IS CRUMBLING

BRUCE WALLACE October 7 1991
COVER

A MIRROR ON A PROVINCE

MONTREAL’S ECONOMY IS CRUMBLING

BRUCE WALLACE October 7 1991

A MIRROR ON A PROVINCE

COVER

MONTREAL’S ECONOMY IS CRUMBLING

On a crisp morning last week, clouds shrouded the landmark tower of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, obscuring the normally striking view of the building from the sprawling grounds of CP Rail’s Angus Shops, 15 blocks away. Taking a break from his job as a tinsmith, CP employee Pierre Lebrun laughed derisively as he described the structure’s latest brush with noto-

riety. The “Big Owe,” as many Montrealers call the $ 1.2-billion structure, has been closed indefinitely as a result of a 55-ton concrete beam shearing away from the exterior wall on Sept. 13 and crashing down on a concourse where visitors often walk. “That’s a real white elephant, all right,” said Lebrun, 39, as he gestured towards the clam-shaped structure. But he paused as he surveyed the low-rise redbrick buildings of the surrounding train maintenance yard. Said Lebrun: “But at least it’s not extinct like this place will soon be.”

The gloomy pall that obscured the stadium tower matched the mood of the workers at the historic Angus Shops themselves last week. Three days after the stadium beam collapsed, CP Rail announced that it would close the 88year-old facility by Jan. 3, putting 720 of its 900 remaining employees out of work. Once a beacon of Montreal’s industrial might, the Angus Shops have now joined the Olympic Stadi-

urn as a symbol of the city’s crumbling economy and bruised civic pride. And in a week when Quebecers began to assess Ottawa’s latest proposals for a renewed confederation, gloomy forecasts for the city’s economic future dampened enthusiasm for any quick embrace of Quebec independence. Said economist Laurent Picard: “All the recent bad news has exposed the underlying weakness of Montreal’s economy.”

The compendium of dismal events is extensive—and chastening to a business community

that as recently as 18 months ago was confident in its economic strength. Montreal lost 42,000 jobs in the 12 months following July, 1990, many of them in high-profile companies such as Domtar Inc., which cut 1,300 employees. Another 1,780 workers lost their jobs when Pascal Inc., a prominent family-owned furniture retail chain, went bankrupt. Air Canada cut 1,058 jobs, with another 700 still to come by January. But the biggest shock was provided by Lavalin Inc., the brash engineering company that had been the jewel of Quebec’s entrepreneurial revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, when it had to be absorbed by rival SNC Group Inc. in August to stave off bankruptcy. Noted Jean V. Dufresne, a columnist with the Journal de Montréal: “Montrealers are like a boxer who is weaving in a comer of the ring after taking too many blows.”

Sobering: In fact, many members of Quebec’s business and political elites have been struck by a sudden sobering awareness of the province’s vulnerability. Said Picard: “People are starting to say, ‘Maybe we’ve overblown our capabilities.’ We tended to believe in a kind of invincibility in the business world that was not only naive, but dysfunctional.” Few business leaders expect that the current economic uncertainty alone will drive Quebecers back into the federalist fold. But Dufresne, for one, argues that if Ottawa pursues its plan for an economic union, but guarantees not to trample on provincial economic institutions such as the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, then “Quebecers might be willing to make a deal.” And clearly, the embarrassment of having to close Olympic Stadium has added to Montreal’s jitters. Last week, security guards and metal fences with yellow “danger” stickers kept visitors out of harm’s way, and a green tarpaulin covered the gaping hole where the con£ crete beam and some Plexi§ glas windows had broken o away. “We’re a laughing| stock now,” said a stadium “ security guard who asked not to be named. “People outside Quebec wouldn’t care if the whole damn thing fell in on us.” Montreal entertainment impresario Donald Tarlton was more hopeful. “The collective political headache and recession has given everyone negative vibes,” said the head of Donald K. Donald Productions Inc. “But all we need are a couple of victories and we will be partying again.” Such optimism was a rare commodity last week, as Quebecers grimly weighed their constitutional—and economic—options.

BRUCE WALLACE in Montreal