Hamilton Could Learn from Montreal

By Jason Leach
Published February 22, 2012

this blog entry has been updated

The Spectator published an opinion column yesterday that caught my attention.

[I]s it any surprise Quebec is dying on the vine?

For the last 40 years, they have been driving everyone out of the province who didn't buy into separatist ideals and only wanted those who did. The message was quite clear. The welcome mat was in French only. If you don't buy in, we don't want you.

Families and businesses, large and small, have been quietly leaving for years; the recession has merely been the latest catalyst following anxious referendum threats, high taxes, corruption and deteriorating infrastructure.

And let's not forget the soft nationalists. Those are Quebecers who don't really want to separate from Canada but don't mind holding a gun to the head of the rest of the country, saying they'll keep it there until they get what they want.

This isn't a Hamilton-specific issue, but as an observer of urban politics and economic performance, I was kind of perplexed by the assumptions being made, especially given our own very lacklustre growth in the past few decades.

Canada is an urban nation, and for better or worse, our provinces are judged on the merits of our biggest cities. One could easily make the case that we are in much worse shape than statistics show if we were to focus on the extreme poverty, addictions and lack of education or employment in our smallest northern towns in many provinces.

The author notes that Ontario's cities, and especially Toronto, are still the dominant force in Canada. Solely based on population growth, this could seem an easy assumption. But what about economic growth, education opportunities, livability, affordability, quality of life, safety, culture, transportation and the many other factors that help determine whether 'people want to live there'?

So then, let's check a few Montreal-specific stats to gauge the heartbeat of Quebec's economy.

First, the City and its Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) continue to grow. At current rates, the CMA will pass 4 million by the next census.

Montreal Population by Year, 2001-2011
Year City Island CMA
2001 1,039,534 1,812,723 3,436,350
2006 1,620,693 1,854,442 3,635,571
2011 1,649,519 1,886,481 3,824,221

Similarly, the economy continues to grow and is very diversified, with major sectors ranging from culture to education to oil refining, aerospace and technology. The city has already succeeded in revitalizing run-down neighbourhoods through the video game industry.

Montreal also enjoys higher quality-of-life rankings than any western Canadian city aside from Vancouver, which always tops the charts.

Montreal was just rated the best student city in Canada and the tenth best worldwide. The city has more universities than any other Canadian city.

Considering this is simply an opinion piece in response to an opinion piece, let me by completely upfront and state that Montreal is, in my view, the best city in Canada. By far.

Located here in Hamilton, we should aspire to develop our city in such a human scaled, vibrant, lively model as Montreal.

Perhaps the area in which Montreal embarrasses our Ontario cities the most is in urban transportation. In what other city in Canada would you rather be a cyclist, transit user or pedestrian?

The fact that its Metro still moves more people than the TTC, despite larger population numbers in Toronto, speaks to the effectiveness of their system and for their ability, for the most part, to develop and redevelop urban neighbourhoods instead of simply sprawling across the countryside endlessly.

One visit to Montreal will make it clear that you're in a Canadian city like no other.

It's easy to look simply at population numbers and assume that Toronto and Ontario have done everything right, but at ground level, the story can be much different.

Do we in Hamilton have any room to be bragging, or putting down our most storied urban city, considering the fact that our city still looks like a 1970s Soviet centre and has struggled to barely grow, all while in the heart of Canada's 'boom' region?

No city is perfect, and let's be clear, I love Hamilton. Period. But if I had to choose one city on the planet to model Hamilton's revitalization after, it would be Montreal. Heck, even our geography is similar!

Downtown Montreal from the top of Mount Royal (Image Credit: Shutterstock)
Downtown Montreal from the top of Mount Royal (Image Credit: Shutterstock)

From this little corner in downtown Hamilton, I've got nothing but love for Canada's most beautiful city...and an eye to replicating some of that success here in our own stunning city

Downtown Hamilton from the Escarpment (Image Credit: Ray Love/Flickr)
Downtown Hamilton from the Escarpment (Image Credit: Ray Love/Flickr)

Update: updated to add proper credit to Ray Love for the photograph of downtown Hamilton.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 09:08:39

That was certainly a hyperbolic, one-sided opinion piece with lots of bold statements:

There is no shortage of stories of Quebec’s exodus over the years.

But nothing to really back any of them up... besides opinion.

You also got me thinking about economies and how we judge economies. What is a "healthy" economy? What are the metrics we use to determine that? How effective are our traditional economic metrics for determining the social health and vibrancy of a city? Mr. Thompson seems ready to hang the out-of-business sign around the neck of Quebec solely based on a population shift to the west… a dubious starting point for some trite Quebec-bashing.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 09:25:21 in reply to Comment 74614

I assume you're quoting from and referring to the opinion piece Jason is writing about, and not Jason's article, since the quote you've provided above is not in Jason's article itself.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 09:31:33 in reply to Comment 74618

Ya sorry, should have made that clearer Robert.

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By Selway (registered) | Posted February 22, 2012 at 22:25:36

Excellent response to a really dumb Spectator opinion piece that is essentially resentment that francophones want to work and live in French when possible. I go to the occasional national conference where it is consistently embarassing to find that English-capable francophones usually outnumber their French-capable anglophone colleagues - not that it seems to keep anyone from exchanging views and advancing the agendas. Montreal and Quebec are ahead in a lot of ways, and Ontario in some others ie we are somewhat DIFFERENT from one another - which after all is the point of the arrangements.

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By Asymmetrics (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 01:21:25

Re: Economic Vitality

"In its 2010 budget, the Quebec government presents a clear and honest view of the dire fiscal situation that the province currently faces. For fiscal year 2009–10, the province is slated to post its largest deficit—$4.3 billion—since the recession of the early 1990s, and that number will rise to $4.5 billion in 2010–11. More troubling, Quebec expects its gross debt to rise to more than half of provincial GDP through the near term, peaking at 55 per cent in 2012. By 2011–12, debt-servicing costs will eat up nearly $8 billion of Quebec’s provincial budget.
In the face of a rapidly aging population (and the resulting shrinking tax base), the 2010 budget squarely addresses the challenge of fiscal sustainability. Health care—easily the largest spending component—will see growth capped at 5 per cent going forward. Furthermore, new health-care funds will be generated through the introduction of a “health contribution” that will raise $1 billion a year by 2012. A second consecutive 1 percentage point increase in the Quebec Sales Tax (QST), valued at $1.6 billion, will be effective January 1, 2012. Additionally, minor tax increases on mining royalties and compensatory taxes for financial institutions will also add to revenues. At the same time, the Quebec government has set itself the daunting task of restraining total program spending to 2.2 per cent annually after 2011–12. If these measures can be implemented as described, Quebec could return to fiscal balance as early as 2013–14. Regardless, delaying a return to fiscal equilibrium any further is simply not an option for Quebec.

Among the Canadian provinces, Quebec is arguably in the most precarious fiscal situation. The provincial net debt now stands at $129 billion—equal to 43 per cent of provincial GDP. (Two decades ago, Quebec’s net debt-to-GDP ratio was only 22 per cent.) According to figures released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Quebec is in the fifth-worst position in terms of fiscal debt burden in the western industrialized world. Only Italy, Japan, Belgium, and Greece have higher debt-to-GDP ratios. Between 2009–10 and 2011–12 alone, debt-servicing costs will rise 29 per cent, providing a strong incentive for Quebec to curb its spending growth."

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 02:50:49 in reply to Comment 74676

Fun facts...

In 1998, debt charges for Quebec were 16.75% of revenue. As of 2011, they were down to 11.47%.

In 1998, debt charges in Ontario were 16.6% of revenue (2.43% of GDP). For 2011, they were down to 8.97% (1.60% of GDP).

Since the onset of the Great Recession, Ontario's debt charges have increased from 1.47% to 1.60%, or 2.86%/year.

At that rate, it would take another 18 years to hit the 2.61% of GDP that we saw in 1999-2000.

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By Asymmetrics (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 01:30:57

FWIW, Ontario's debt-to-GDP ratio was around 35% in 2010-2011.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 07:48:27 in reply to Comment 74677

Interesting stats....If I'm reading them correctly Ontario's debt-to-GDP ratio has doubled in the past 2 decades, while Quebec's has almost doubled? Not a very good trend.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 09:29:55 in reply to Comment 74685

If someone isn't going into debt, whether that is: governments (i.e., taxpayers), citizens, or corporations, there is no "growth economy". So expect that trend to continue until we realise a "growth economy" is a noose around all our necks.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 12:21:02 in reply to Comment 74690

Government debt, specifically, federal debt, is not actually debt at all, regardless of what our leaders tell us.

Here is a quote from a paper put out by the Parliament of Canada...

"It should be noted that the absence of sales of government bonds or treasury bills in the context of a prolonged fiscal deficit would cause the Receiver General account cash balance to go into overdraft. The central bank may object to this approach, however, because it might give the public the perception that the federal government is financing its spending using a “line of credit.” Nonetheless, the approach is sensible from an operations standpoint.

Did you catch that?

From an actual operations standpoint, the federal government COULD keep spending, even WITHOUT bond sales. That would occur because the Bank of Canada could just keep crediting money to their account.

Here is how the paper describes the role of federal debt...

"2.2 The “Traditional” Tool: The Bank of Canada’s Open Market Operations

Open market operations consist of withdrawing cash from the economy by selling government securities to financial institutions, or injecting cash into the economy by buying government securities from financial institutions.

The target for the overnight rate dictates the interest rate at which the Bank buys or sells these securities. If the overnight rate is trading above the target – a sign that there is not enough cash available to lend in the interbank market – the Bank will intervene by adding liquidity to the private economy through the purchase of government securities.

Conversely, if the overnight rate is trading below the target rate – a sign that there is too much cash available to lend in the interbank market – the Bank will intervene by withdrawing liquidity from the private economy through the sale of government securities."

Federal debt is just a tool to control interest rates. It is not something our children EVER have to pay back, it is not a moral issue, it is just a reserve drain AND is actually a prime source of savings for Canadians.

The ONLY reason why Canadians think public debt is bad, is because it is called PUBLIC DEBT. It just sounds bad.

In reality, the federal debt is just the amount of money the feds have put into the private sector and not taxed back out of circulation.

Bigger federal deficit = Higher private savings

Larger federal surplus = Higher household debt

That's why as the federal debt has been reduced the past decade, household debt has soared. The feds, in paying down their debt, have simply drained private savings from the banking system, forcing people to borrow from the banks.

With unemployment at 7.6%, the feds should cut taxes, run a larger deficit, which would allow Canadians to spend more and also pay down bank debt. The fact that this is not happening is because people still believe that the feds are spending constrained. However, according to the Parliament of Canada, this just isn't true.

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By Asymmetrics (anonymous) | Posted February 23, 2012 at 08:54:28 in reply to Comment 74685

Here's 1990 to present:

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By photobug (anonymous) | Posted February 26, 2012 at 12:46:58

Jason, I am curious who took the photos used in your article. Crediting 'Flickr' does not answer that. I will assume that Shutterstock has allowed your use of their image also.

Why does it matter? Because I may have been the one who took one of those photos...

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By perfect (anonymous) | Posted February 27, 2012 at 13:48:57

Montreal has gone from being the financial and corporate capital in Canada to being the best University town in Canada. This is the model you want to follow? No thanks.

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By Frank Lee (anonymous) | Posted May 26, 2012 at 16:06:54

Billions in equalization payments seem to make the Quebec dream a reality and possibly put the lie to talk of separation. If the province had to look after itself, the picture would change considerably. (This may be part of the reason why there is such a stark difference in post-secondary tuition between Ontario and Quebec.)

The same might be said of Hamilton. As good-paying manufacturing jobs have evaporated in recent decades, the city's economy has become increasingly reliant on public sector job creation in sectors like health care and education, two areas that dominate the local economy and also where control resides with other levels of government.

Now Ontario is wading into battle with teachers and doctors because politicians have woken up to the fact that the current model is unsustainable.

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By Ray Love (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2013 at 17:54:30

You need to properly credit the Hamilton Photo! Its not taken by Flickr!

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