QUEBEC VIEW: CITIES
Jacobs was avant-garde in seeing Montreal's future is in innovation
MONTREAL -- Twenty-six years ago, in a now almost forgotten essay espousing Quebec sovereignty, Jane Jacobs explained why Toronto had overtaken Montreal as Canada's metropolitan mover-and-shaker. Hint: It had nothing to do with the rise of indépendantiste sentiment that culminated -- the same year Ms. Jacobs's The Question of Separatism was published -- in the province's first referendum on sovereignty-association.
Few thinkers outside Quebec have ever considered the question of sovereignty as deeply, or as free of ideological and patriotic bias, as Ms. Jacobs did. In later work, such as Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she would show how urban agglomerations are the natural engines of national growth, a theory that turned the history of Canada's economic development -- one in which cities supposedly emerged to service a resource-based economy -- on its head. Her earlier argument in favour of Quebec sovereignty was similarly rooted in this idea and she believed, in 1980, that only separation could stanch Montreal's decline.
It was surprising, then, that Ms. Jacobs' death last week went virtually unremarked upon in Quebec. La Presse and Le Devoir mentioned it in passing, but without any reference to her pro-sovereigntist leanings. Surprising, too, because the theories Ms. Jacobs invented remain as relevant as ever for Montreal as it grapples with the challenges that accompany second-city status.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Ms. Jacobs believed that Montreal did not lose its dominant position as Canada's financial centre as French-speaking Quebeckers began to challenge the English minority's control over the provincial economy in the 1960s. Nor was the anglo exodus that followed the Parti Québécois' first election victory in 1976, and subsequent adoption of Bill 101, at the root of it.
"It was the decline [of Montreal] that led to the exodus, and not the other way around," Ms. Jacobs told L'actualité magazine in 1992. "People go or stay where the jobs are. Look at the exodus of francophones to New England at the end of the nineteenth century. They didn't leave because of language laws, but to find work."
Instead, Ms. Jacobs concluded that Montreal declined because the Anglo-Scottish bankers who ran the Quebec economy during the first half of the 20th century were too cautious. From their Westmount perches, where they lived comfortably on the dividends earned from a handful of big resource companies, they saw no need for change. Their Toronto counterparts, on the other hand, were go-getters and risk takers.
Long before most others, Ms. Jacobs recognized that innovation was the first ingredient of economic growth and that cities, where individuals and ideas collide, are where most innovation occurs.
Ms. Jacobs' message has never been as relevant: "You have to act as if your principal product is about to disappear. The high-tech products of today are the has-beens of tomorrow. Radically new products emerge where no one expects. [Today's] pen makers did not invent the ball-point pen . . . These kind of discoveries are usually ridiculed at first by industry and bureaucrats."
Whether sovereignty is the answer to Montreal's relative decline vis-à-vis Toronto is a subject for fascinating debate. But second-city status has not stopped Montreal from becoming one of the most innovative and diverse economic centres in the country. Indeed, it may just be the root cause of it.
Filling the void left by the old anglo bankers, native francophones and immigrants -- and a large number of young anglos attracted here by Montreal's alternative bent -- have taken advantage of the city's low cost of living to set up innovation-oriented businesses. A study produced last year for the Montreal Board of Trade by Richard Florida, the U.S. urban development guru and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, concluded the city was second in North America when it comes to employment in the "super-creative" sectors of the economy -- computer sciences, architecture, engineering, education, design, culture.
Unfortunately, according to the same study, Toronto is No. 1. And for all the dynamism of Montreal's creative classes, the city's economy is failing many of its citizens. Montreal's unemployment rate stands at an abysmal 11.6 per cent, compared with 8.4 per cent for all of Quebec and 6.3 per cent nationally. A study released on Monday showed that 40 per cent of those who do have jobs in Montreal earn less than $20,000 a year. In a few east-end neighbourhoods, welfare recipients account for as much as a third of all residents.
Although policy makers should know better -- after the Olympic Stadium and Mirabel experiences -- megaprojects are still promoted as economic cure-alls. The latest idea, a $1.2-billion casino that Loto-Québec touted as a tourist magnet, was thankfully torpedoed by public protests led by social activists who decried its proximity to a poor neighbourhood.
Like Ms. Jacobs, they knew that really great cities put their own people first.