Here's how the story goes: Once upon a time, there was a prosperous city called Montreal that was the economic capital of Canada. But one day, dark forces called "Quebec Nationalism" began causing "instability" and in 1977 they imposed French on everyone through La charte de la langue française AKA Bill 101. The good people of Montreal (Anglo capitalists) fled in horror to the safety of Toronto taking all their money with them. And that is why Toronto is now the economic capital of Canada, not Montreal.
Well, that's how it was told to me a number of times. It always struck me as a strange story. As long as there is money to be made, there will be capitalists there to do business. Even the rise of the overtly racist and genocidal Hitler in Germany did not scare away western capitalists. But somehow the PQ and their Bill 101 managed to terrify all these big corporations. Is French really that scary?
There's no denying that the decline of Montreal and the rise of Toronto do seem to be linked and there were some well publicized "capital flight" stories in the media at the time. One only has to think of the story of those Brink's trucks full of cash leaving for Toronto right before the 1970 Quebec elections. OK, that one was a staged media propaganda stunt but Sun Life's headquarters did pack up and leave for Toronto in 1978, listing Bill 101 as one of the reasons. Did Quebec nationalism really cause this economic shift from Montreal to Toronto? If not, then what is the real cause?
The St. Lawrence Seaway
There is, of course, another event that coincides with this economic shift which is the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. Prior to this, all ocean-going vessels had to stop in Montreal to unload goods which were then shipped to the Great Lakes on smaller vessels or by rail. Most Canadian exports passed through Montreal as well. The St. Lawrence river has always been an important trade route and Montreal is situated at the most strategic spot on this route. Any city in a position like that will prosper.
However, this all changed in 1959. Thanks to the St. Lawrence Seaway, ocean-going vessels could simply bypass Montreal and continue to the Great Lakes and Toronto. So, it's not surprising that much of the economic activity related to this international trade also bypassed Montreal and went to Toronto in the following decades. Politics did play a role in this economic shift but it wasn't Quebec nationalism. It was political decisions made by the English Canadian establishment which favoured Toronto over Montreal.
The real question we need to ask ourselves is what independent country would have gone along with such a project without any real compensation? I'm not saying that the St. Lawrence Seaway is necessarily a bad thing for Quebec. The Panama and Suez canals are both money makers for their respective countries but the revenues Quebec gets from the Seaway are nothing compared to what it lost. The reality is that no sovereign country would have agreed to that. The province of Quebec, however, had no choice but to go along with a plan that was detrimental to its economy. Not only did Quebecers have to go along with the plan but they had to partly finance it through their taxes.
Being dominated by another nation has its price. We're never told of this story and of how many billions were sucked out of Quebec and sent to Toronto. No, we're not told about that but we are endlessly told about transfer payments and how Quebec is like Greece or a third-world country and how Quebec needs Canada to support its extravagant socialist life-style!?!
I think it's time for Quebec to start writing its own history and stop letting others invent it for us.