Quebec’s Politics is Holding its Cities Back

Amid the heated debate around cultural issues in Quebec’s election, I’ve been thinking about how it will affect the province and its cities. In today’s Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson put many of my thoughts on the immigration issue into words. Political leaders are fighting the trend that has made so many places throughout the west more dynamic and successful in recent decades.

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The Progress That Has Been Made
I previously wrote about how Quebec politics has shaped me. Quebec remains one of my favourite places, and I think I have some appreciation for it.

The shift in power that has resulted in greater Francophone participation in leadership roles (particularly in business) is the right thing, both from a social justice and human capital perspective. However, many measures that have been enacted, or are proposed, go too far, and prevent the province (or a given city) as a whole from prospering.

Immigration from Abroad
Last week, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the son of immigrants who arrived in Toronto before settling in Calgary, gave a speech in Prince Edward Island. There, he warned about traditional insular culture, and extolled the benefits that an open culture has brought to Calgary.

The point was made in respect to the Atlantic provinces, but it could just as easily be said about Quebec. With its restrictive rules around immigration, Quebec is closing itself off to potential future Naheed Nenshis, who will instead settle in Ontario, British Columbia, or (increasingly) Alberta. Ibbitson points out the lack of success Quebec is having in meeting targets, and keeping many who do arrive. The critique of Quebec’s immigration policy is not meant as a slight against people who do settle there. Rather, the point is that by effectively limiting your pool of immigrants, you’re excluding many who would enrich your community.

Migration from Across Canada
Montreal still attracts migrants from across the country, though it seems its permanent anglophone population is increasingly concentrated in industries where the French language is less central – arts and culture, media, English-language higher education institutions. Yet, it’s not the (permanent) destination that Vancouver, Toronto, or Calgary are. My generation is far more bilingual than previous ones, yet this hasn’t made us more likely to settle in Quebec. I’d strongly consider any opportunity to live and work there, but I’m not sure I can say that for most of my peers. Given the vibrancy and quality of life Montreal in particular offers, this shouldn’t be the case.

Looking Back Through History
It’s worth wondering whether the measures were necessary to allow French to flourish. I subscribe to the founding culture theory in Colin Woodward’s American Nations, which states that subsequent waves of migrants will tend to adapt to the norms already set out, not vice versa.

It’s also worth noting that if you go all the way back, Champlain envisioned New France being a pluralistic society. He actively sought cooperation and integration with the Indigenous populations, to an extent that New France stands out in retrospect compared to most Anglo-led settlements. That spirit has been lost, and Quebec is a less rich place than it should be because of this.

What Does This Mean for Quebec’s Cities?
A snapshot of the present shows good and bad news. Quebec City is home to a handful of large companies, and Montreal edges out Calgary for being home to the second most companies in the FP500 – though less than half compared to Toronto. Both cities can boast thriving arts and culture scenes, and Montreal is a leading center in the video game industry.

Yet, for much of the country, Quebec City is more of a playground. It’s a place you go to have fun, not a place you think about living or doing business.

Montreal, for its successes, is nonetheless on a 40-year (if not longer) trend of seeing its influence wane, as companies and people have exited to head west or south. It lags other big metros in productivity, and my initial rankings of Canadian cities last month saw it come in virtually tied with Ottawa, and noticeably lagging the other two biggest metros (and Calgary).

There’s no reason for this to happen. French is firmly established as the local lingua franca. Non-pure laine go there because of the vibrant culture and opportunities that want to exist. They do not wish to assimilate the former, and they have much to offer in increasing the latter. By all measures of what attracts creative, talented professionals, Montreal should be a magnet city, and it should be a hotbed of entrepreneurship. Provincial leaders are working against this happening. If they envision a pure laine society, they need to be ready to deal with the economic ramifications that likely means.

More to the point, though, there is no reason to believe they need to go in this direction. Has English culture dissipated as London has become more cosmopolitan? Did New York cease to be New York as it embraced being a global hub? Did people stop wearing Smithbilts at Stampede because of migration to Calgary? No, no, and no.

Quebec is home to great cities that could yet be so much more. Citizens and civic leaders would do well to see (im)migration as a benefit, and a way for their cities to further prosper, rather than a threat. The longer they put off doing this, the more likely it is their leading cities will fall further behind.

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One Response

  1. […] this to the proposed approach of Quebec’s government in waiting. In a province where only one major city – Montreal – is really multingual, nevermind […]

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