If you have been to Montreal at any time over the past couple of years, you will have noticed that there is a fair bit of construction work going on. And if you live in Montreal, you will have recognized that previous sentence to be a vast understatement.
Canada’s second-biggest urban centre has not seen this much physical renewal under way since it was, well, Canada’s biggest city back in the mid-1960s – when the construction of the underground Metro system and preparations for Expo 67 made Montreal a global hot spot.
It would be hard to top the optimism of that era, when Montreal seemed poised for greatness. But after decades of stagnation in the city, brought on in part by political uncertainty over Quebec’s future within Canada, Montrealers are feeling rightly upbeat about its future again.
Montreal’s economy is projected to grow by 3 per cent in 2019, according to a report published this week by the Conference Board of Canada. This year, as in 2018, Montreal will grow faster than any of the country’s other 12 metropolitan economies tracked by the Ottawa-based think tank. Montreal’s average three-year growth rate is also the best in Canada.
It’s not hard to see why. A $3.7-billion rebuild of the giant Turcot interchange has been going on for a few years now, creating massive traffic snarls for commuters and visitors who fly into and out of Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. And work on the $6.3-billion, 67-kilometre Réseau express métropolitain light-rail transit project, a good portion of which will run underground through the city’s core, is going full throttle now.
The new Champlain Bridge that links Montreal to its suburbs on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, a $4.5-billion project financed entirely by the federal government, was inaugurated last summer. And construction will soon begin on a $4-billion extension of the Metro’s Blue Line, much to the relief of residents of the city’s long-neglected east end.
Meanwhile, long stretches of the main shopping drag, Saint Catherine Street, have been dug up for the better of the past two years as the city replaces a nearly century-old sewer system and makes the thoroughfare more pedestrian friendly. That project will go on for a few more years, with work moving from east to west along the iconic street. Next up is a project to make McGill College Avenue, with its breathtaking vistas of Mount Royal, off-limits to cars.
For the time being, all this construction work, which comes amid a boom in condo building, has left vast swaths of the city in a muddy, unsightly mess. Shoppers have been avoiding Saint Catherine and multiple stores have closed. But Montrealers, who have long considered orange pylons their city’s unofficial symbol, have generally taken it all in stride. After all, the final product promises to be stunning, turning the city into a modern 21st-century metropolis.
On the second anniversary of her election this week, Mayor Valérie Plante naturally sought to claim some of the credit for helping Montreal get its mojo back. Perhaps the best that can be said is that Ms. Plante’s left-leaning Projet Montréal administration has not been the obstacle to economic development that many in the city’s business community had feared it would be. It has approved the construction of massive condo towers decried by heritage experts, as foreign investors put off by taxes in Vancouver and Toronto rush into the Montreal market.
Ms. Plante has turned out to be a fairly middle-of-the-road mayor, sidelining those in her party who favour waging war on the car. After a pilot project to eliminate through traffic on the main thoroughfare running over Mount Royal was widely panned by drivers and experts alike, Ms. Plante scrapped a campaign promise to make the arrangement permanent.
Montreal’s renewed dynamism also stems from the fact that the city has been a magnet for immigrants, especially from France, in recent years. Under previous provincial governments, Quebec welcomed more than half a million newcomers from other countries between 2009 and 2018. More than 80 per cent of them settled in the Montreal region.
The current Coalition Avenir Québec government has, however, moved to cut immigration levels, at least temporarily. And the CAQ’s Bill 21, which prohibits provincial employees in a position of authority from wearing religious symbols, has created a perception that Quebec has become a less friendly place for newcomers. Ms. Plante, who opposes the new law, fears her city will pay the price for a law meant to placate voters in the rest of the province.
Indeed, the demographic, political and cultural chasm between Montreal and the rest of Quebec is wider than ever. And that may be the darkest cloud hanging over Montreal’s future.