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Editorial: Lessons from Montreal

Editorial: Lessons from Montreal

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Knowing a few words in French will help you in any French-speaking city. Prepare to have your mind blown: The biggest French-speaking city in the world isn’t French. It’s Kinsasha, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gay Paree comes in second. The third biggest is Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The fourth-biggest is Montreal, which is our subject today.

The Stanley Cup finals are underway, pitting the Montreal Canadiens against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Let’s take this opportunity to look at Montreal’s economy to see if there are any lessons we can glean that might apply here in this part of Virginia.

Before we do, we should point out that Montreal is lucky to be hosting the Stanley Cup finals, and not simply because the Canadiens were the No. 4 seed in their division when the playoffs began.

Throughout the pandemic, Canada has consistently had far lower infection rates than the United States — and a much stricter response.

You think those two things might be connected? Canada has run 3,743 infections for every 100,000 people; that’s one of the lowest rates in the developed world. The United States has run 10,055 infections per 100,000 — one of the highest rates.

How strict is Canada on virus rules? The hockey-mad country barely agreed to let NHL teams cross the border for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

During the regular season, the NHL had to group all the Canadian teams in a single division because the Canadian government wouldn’t let any of them cross into the virus-ridden U.S.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of getting 70% of all adults vaccinated by July 4.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has set a higher goal — 75%.

Canadians also have been more enthusiastic about getting vaccinated than Americans have. So far, 68% of all Canadians have been vaccinated at least once, while only 54% of Americans have.

Trudeau has been reluctant to reopen the border because, quite frankly, Canadians are afraid of us. Not because of our military might, but because they think we’re disease-ridden, and he’s got a point.

Another comparison: In the semifinal rounds, Montreal was allowed to have only 3,500 fans while the Vegas Golden Knights played before full houses — even though the virus rate in Nevada is higher than it is in Quebec, and the rates there are increasing, while in Quebec they’re decreasing.

But on to the economy.

Montreal is an interesting case study for us because, much like Southwest and Southside Virginia, the city has had to reinvent its economy, just for somewhat different reasons.

Historically, Montreal was Canada’s economically dominant city, with Toronto as its rival. In the 1970s, Quebec separatists came to power. They failed to secede from Canada, but they instituted new language laws to ensure the primacy of French in the workplace. The result: Many companies with English-speaking employees decamped for Toronto and now it’s Canada’s main economic hub.

Those lessons don’t apply to us but this does: Montreal was also a big manufacturing city and suffered the same fate as many American Rust Belt cities — and many communities across rural Virginia. Another similarity: Just like Danville, Montreal was a big textile city back in the day.

Today Montreal stands as world-class technology capital, with Forbes magazine publishing articles entitled “why Montreal became an artificial intelligence powerhouse.”

All the big tech companies are there — Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and a lot you haven’t heard of. The analysts at Expert Report have ranked Montreal as the ninth biggest tech hub in the world. Not bad for a city that seemed to be dying in the 1970s and 1980s.

So how did this happen? Sorry free marketers, the answer is government intervention. In the 1990s, the provincial government, under those French separatists, set out to refashion Montreal as a tech center — and was willing to pay lots of subsidies to attract tech companies.

One of the first was Ubisoft, a French video game designer that was looking for a North American location.

Montreal held a lot of appeal for language reasons, but the company was also looking at Boston. Quebec came up with an offer that was too good to refuse: It offered to pay about $20,000 per job if the company created 500 jobs.

The provincial government also created a tax credit specifically for video game developers. That jump-started a video game industry. Now Montreal ranks as the world’s fifth-biggest video game hub — behind Tokyo, London, San Francisco, and Austin — with more than 11,000 employees.

And that’s just part of Montreal’s tech ecosystem. Next time you’re watching a movie, stick through the credits. The odds are you’ll see Quebec referenced. That’s because a lot of the tech-related work on movies gets done there (thanks to more favorable tax credits). The Financial Post, in a 2019 story about Montreal’s tech rise, quotes ab industry executive who said: “The momentum from the 1997 decision to introduce a tax incentive for the video-game industry continues more than 20 years later, spinning off talent into other sectors like AI, VFX and simulation firms.” Tax credits are philosophically controversial for some but they sure seem to have worked in Montreal.

None of that happens in a vacuum, of course. The Financial Post also singles outs “an education system that churns out ready-to-play talent.” That mirrors how Virginia promised to create a “tech pipeline” of talent if Amazon located in the state. The Financial Post quoted one tech industry executive about Montreal: “If you don’t have the talent, it doesn’t matter how many tax credits you get.” That’s a lesson that definitely applies, be it Montreal or Martinsville or Marion.

One other thing gets cited for Montreal’s transformation into a tech hub: Its quality of life. That seems odd to our Southern bones — the average temperature in January is 15 degrees. But now it’s June, soon to be July, and the city’s hockey team is still on the ice, so there’s that.

— The Roanoke Times


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