What kind of Economic Development for Montreal? : A IPAM policy analysis

11 August 2011 – Montreal’s 2011-2017 Economic Development strategy, unveiled on June 13, is an exhaustive document that takes stock of Montreal Island’s current economic situation and puts forward some broad approaches for the next five years. Such an overall strategy, which highlights the role played by social economy, entrepreneurs and other economic actors in Montreal’s development, is a useful and necessary tool. Linking the city back to its river, promoting collaboration and innovation, encouraging entrepreneurship and increasing GDP are all desirable objectives that this strategy document encourages and supports.

How about Montrealers?

The document, however, is essentially outward looking. The proposed strategy is principally aimed at attracting outside talent and investment, in particular by proposing major real estate projects. In a sense, the document presents Montreal as a city for sale. It shows little preoccupation with Montreal’s current inhabitants in all their diversity and dynamism. An economic strategy’s first priority should in principle be the current residents’ future well-being. Relying on major real estate projects  to spearhead the city’s development risks creating tourist attractions at the expense of local workers, artists and businesses who are busy building up Montreal’s wealth and innovativeness. Overall, the strategy document abstracts from Montreal’s existing social and economic realities and glosses over concrete actions that could be implemented to increase the standard of living and economic integration of Montrealers themselves.

Another economy

An economy does not consist solely of talented people, big investors, university graduates, culture and high-end services. The manufacturing sector, which is still dominant in Montreal’s economy, but where thousands of jobs have been lost over the last decade, is hardly mentioned in the strategy. The homeless, the unemployed, refugees and recent immigrants are also economic actors – they represent an underutilized potential which, if it is not successfully channeled, risks becoming a burden to the public purse. The 2011-2017 strategy does not put forward any vision which would allow for the enhancement and support of these people’s economic capacities. For instance, much emphasis is put on increasing the number of graduates: but there is no mention of adult education, of lifelong training, of training for people who have been displaced by current structural changes in the economy, or of formal recognition of their competences. Similarly the reduction of unemployment and poverty are explicitly omitted from the ‘new paradigm’ promoted by the strategy document. Finally, amongst the wide array of partners that are listed, the associative sector – such as unions and community groups – is not mentioned.

An island without a metropolis

The strategy is focused exclusively on Montreal Island. Laval, and the North and South shores are presented as competitors, not as partners. There is therefore no mention of the strong complementarities that exist, or that could be promoted, between the island and its suburbs. However, the clusters that are promoted – such as the aeronautical and eco-technology clusters – do not suddenly stop at Montreal’s bridges, and many on-island jobs are held by off-island residents (and vice-versa). The underlying causes of the migration of increasing numbers of Montrealers to off-island suburbs are not presented, and nowhere does the document propose a strategy for building affordable housing: only major real estate projects are mentioned, and possible participatory processes aimed at better understanding Montrealers’ housing and employment needs are absent.

The means to act

Finally, the question of the means available to implement the strategy is nowhere raised. Whatever the proposed strategy, whatever its qualities and limitations, the agglomeration of Montreal – that is to say Montreal and the other municipalities on the island – does not have the political, fiscal or material capacities to really influence the island’s economic trajectory or that of its businesses and population. When a financial initiative is taken – such as the recent internationalization of Bixi – it rapidly becomes apparent that the city simply does not have the necessary authority to act. Re-balancing the powers of action, finance and decision-making between upper levels of government and municipalities – a consideration that should be at the heart of any economic strategy elaborated at the municipal scale – is the single most important omission from the 2011-2017 economic strategy.
On behalf of the Institut de Politiques alternatives de Montréal :
Phyllis Lambert
Chair of IPAM, Founding Director and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Centre for Architecture

Norma Rantisi,
Member of the Board of IPAM, Professor, Department of Geography, Concordia University.

Dimitri Roussopoulos,
Vice-Chair of IPAM

Richard Shearmur,
Member of the Board of IPAM, Professor, INRS Urbanisation Culture Société

In collaboration with :

Jean-Marc Fontan, Professor,
Department of Sociology, UQÀM

Vincent van Schendel,
Economist, Community Services, UQÀM

The above-mentioned professional  titles are only provided for identification purposes.