Thursday, February 12, 2015

Jane Jacobs on Quebec: Independence or Decline

Commenting on Jane Jacobs’s book on Quebec sovereignty, the architect Joseph Baker wrote in The Gazette on March 22, 1980: "If I were René Lévesque, I would buy all the copies of Jane Jacobs's book and I would hand it out free of charge to everyone west of Saint-Laurent Boulevard. I would even translate it and take back the white paper." This was two months before the 1980 referendum.

What exactly is it that Jane Jacobs, the famous urban planner, said about Quebec that was so original that it brought this eminent citizen of Westmount and future president of the Quebec Order of Architects to make such a proposal? And, are Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on the matter still relevant today?

In The Question Of Separatism - Quebec And The Struggle Over Sovereignty, Ms. Jacobs says that the economic development and prosperity of Montreal necessarily entail an independent Quebec. Without this political sovereignty, Montreal will lose its role as a metropolis and will slowly become a satellite of Toronto, its economy becoming increasingly subservient to that of the chosen "Canadian metropolis". And in the end, all of Quebec will lose out. Montreal will play the same role in relation to Toronto as Lyon to Paris, Glasgow to London, Melbourne to Sydney, in short, a city receiving whatever the greater metropolitan city is willing to grant it.

Proof of Ms. Jacobs’ predictions abounds in the media. In fact, Canadian newspapers are filled with articles where commentators go on and on about the plight of Montreal without ever proposing a convincing solution. The blame is always attributed to political instability, language laws, our lack of collective daring, unions, and so on. Yet the most important urban planner of the twentieth century, Jane Jacobs, wrote this in 1980:
"Montreal cannot afford to behave like other Canadian regional cities without doing great damage to the economic well-being of the Quebecois. It must instead become a creative economic center in its own right.
"Yet there is probably no chance of this happening as long as Quebec remains a province of Canada. The Quebecois themselves seem unaware of the nature of the problem which looms in their future, and given the prevailing assumptions, they may not come to understand it. But they will understand this: things are not going well.” 
That is why the issue of sovereignty for Quebec, now that it has been raised anew as a possibility, is not going to evaporate. Inevitably, whether or not they could do better on their own, the Quebecois are going to think they could, and many of them are going to want to try. We may expect the question of separation to be raised again and again in coming years until it is finally settled either when Canada accedes to some form of sovereignty for Quebec or when the Quebecois accept the decline of Montreal and become resigned to it and to its repercussions.
She wrote this in 1980 and repeated it in an interview in May 2005. Some argue that in taking a position in favor of Quebec independence in 1980, Jane Jacobs lapsed into a secondary domain, straying away from the main subject of her work which was cities and their economies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her position on Quebec is in tune with the rest of her work, both by its content and by the weight of its arguments.

Her book on Quebec is the logical continuation of her previous two books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and The Economy of Cities (1968). The first book revolutionized urban studies worldwide. Champion of urban diversity, social as well as economic, not out of altruism but for the sake of economic vitality, she explained how the majority of urban planners despised everything that was urban and showed a total unawareness of the sources of vitality that make a big city. Fifty years after its publication, this book still is a bedside book for any serious urban planner.

She brought more depth and insight into the economy of cities in her second book, published in 1968, by explaining how urban economies begin, grow in population, and expand economically. She contrasts cities that grew brilliantly only to fall due to their own success, and cities that managed to maintain a more economically viable foundation upon which to grow and prosper through changing times. She also suggested new development paths. She was already predicting the huge economic potential of recycling municipal waste, alas a field still underdeveloped to this day.

What brought about her book on Quebec? CBC Radio had offered her the prestigious forum of the radio series entitled The Massey Lectures. Free to choose her subject, Jane Jacobs titled the series “Canadian Cities and Sovereignty–Association”, which was to become the heart of her book on Quebec. Without the research and reflection on the concrete case of Montreal and Toronto, she would never have been able to write her other ground breaking book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984). In that book, she amply shows the terrible effect of demobilization and economic slowdown in major cities like Montreal, which must comply with the requirements of a “national” logic which imposes a so-called national metropolis.

Eloquent examples

Montreal Stock Exchange Tower
Four years after the 1995 referendum, Montreal almost entirely lost its stock exchange due to a reorganization that still left it with the exclusivity of derivative products for a period of ten years. Six years later however, seeing Montreal’s success in this area, Toronto tried at all costs to get its hands on this exclusivity. It threatening to launch its own derivatives exchange to compete with the Montreal Exchange if it refused the merger deal that the “Metropolis” was offering. Toronto, of course, had the support of Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who was formerly the Ontario Minister of Finance.

The same trend can be seen in the regulation of financial markets. In June 2006, a committee appointed by a minister of the Ontario government, recommended the creation of a single "national" body to regulate financial markets in Canada, thereby eliminating the AMF in Quebec. Jim Flaherty took up the ball and in the name of our "national" economy, supported the creation of a national regulator, which of course would necessarily be in Toronto. This plan is still in the works. Thus, the dismemberment and destruction of all the Montreal's financial sector continues inexorably by the closures the Montreal Exchange, by the concentration of these activities and related transactions (management of mutual funds, etc.) in Toronto and increasingly in Western Canada.

Mirabel: Trudeau's white elephant
Possibly the best example of Montreal's subordination to Toronto can be seen in the realm of air transport. Things started out well enough in the late sixties when Pierre Trudeau announced that Montreal would be "the main gateway to air traffic in Canada, only 60 minutes to New York, three hours to Nassau, six hours to Paris, Brussels or Madrid.” Building a new airport for Montreal was probably the most important federal decision on the physical development of Montreal since 1945.

However, the decisions regarding this airport were made against the expressed will of the government of Quebec, which wanted to build the airport to southeast of Montreal. In short, Ottawa chose the Mirabel site to promote the development of the Montreal - Ottawa axis and the east-west "national" corridor of Windsor - Toronto - Ottawa - Montreal. Ottawa was thus ignoring the development perspective advocated jointly by the Quebec government and the City of Montreal which was to favor the economic and urban development within the triangle formed by the cities of Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and Quebec City.

In the end, following some political maneuvering for a “national” gateway endorsed by the Canadian government, Toronto’s Pearson airport was deemed better suited to become the main "gateway" from which international flights would depart. Therefore, Montreal, whose Dorval airport was renamed the P.E. Trudeau airport (hard not to see the twisted irony in this), has become completely insignificant to air transport, a mere satellite airport serving the chosen "Canadian metropolis”. Trudeau's Mirabel airport, which cost over $500 million to build in the 1970s, is currently being demolished.

Profitable flights transferred to Toronto 

This subordination continues today. Many profitable and regulated international flights have been transferred to Toronto and they're not done, more continue to be transferred every year. The Toronto International Airport has become the first airport in Canada, Vancouver's Airport is now second (not too surprising considering its advantageous geographical position for flights to Asia). Montreal ranks third, its business consisting mainly of local flights feeding the Toronto Pearson Airport. According to an article published in Le Devoir, even Calgary may soon overtake Montreal in terms of international flights.

The transfer of most international flights to Toronto is of course a deliberate choice. After all, is Montreal really too small a city for all of these international flights? Toronto is a city of over 6 million people, compared to 4 million for Montreal.  Let’s look at the importance of numbers.

There are several cities larger than Toronto that find themselves in the same situation as Montreal. For example, the city of Qingdao in the Shandong region of China, is a wealthy city of almost 9 million people and yet its airport plays a regional role, like Montreal. On the other hand cities much smaller than Montreal such as Zurich (400,000 inhabitants), Dublin (500,000 inhabitants) or Copenhagen (2 million) are hubs for international flights. In short, the size or even the economic importance of a city does not necessarily explain its importance as a flight destination. It’s the political status of a city within its own country that explains the importance of some cities and the insignificance of others. 

The smaller size of Montreal to the more populous Toronto does not explain the decline in international flights. The reality is that Montreal has become, over time, a city at the service of Toronto. Head offices move to Toronto, the Montreal Stock Exchange has been swallowed up by Toronto, the largest banks now operate from Toronto and Montreal has no choice in the matter but to cow-tow to Toronto. Like many other major cities, Montreal lives in the shadow of its government chosen State metropolis. 

For, while less wealthy and populous cities around the world play much more important roles than Montreal, within the Canadian "national" logic, Montreal finds itself in an almost neocolonial situation. Like other cities that are rich and populous, such as Marseille, Qingdao, Kaohsiung, San Diego and so on, Montreal was simply not chosen by its state to be the star city. As the metropolis of an independent state however, Montreal would have far greater importance. Jane Jacobs was therefore quite right in saying that without independence, Montreal would be transformed it into a satellite city, and it has.


We pay the price of dependence every day. Whether it is the takeover of the Montreal Stock Exchange by Toronto, the control of our businesses by Bay Street, or the decisions taken by Ottawa that go against the will and well-being of our nation, being the province of another nation is debilitating or as Jane Jacobs said "dependence is stultifying." But on the other hand, she continues by saying that "sometimes the obverse is also true. That is, sometimes independence releases new kinds of effort, opens up formerly untapped funds of energy, initiative, originality and self-confidence." For the future and prosperity of Montreal and of all of Quebec, we need to try the second option: independence, since the first option: dependence, has clearly not been working for us.

Based on articles by Robin Philpot and Maxime Duchesne

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