By Benoit Labonté and David Pecaut
Benoit Labonté is president and chief executive officer of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal; David Pecaut is a Partner at The Boston Consulting Group and Chair of the Toronto City Summit Alliance. Both are members of the External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities, recently created by the Prime Minister of Canada.
The issues of Canadian cities have jumped from local discussion to the front of the national stage in the past two years. This week in Montreal leaders from Canada's twenty-two largest municipalities gather to discuss the needs of Canada's urban regions. The concerns of cities are starting to be heard. For example, the most recent federal budget offered a full GST rebate for municipalities worth $7 billion over ten years. In the current federal election the Liberals, Tories, and NDP are all promising a share of the federal gas tax to cities to be used for municipal infrastructure.
But despite the rhetoric about a new deal, real progress has been slow, and the debate seems to be declining into an argument only about money for infrastructure. In the process we risk losing the opportunity to truly reinvent our major cities.
One of the reasons progress has slowed is that the stakeholders do not yet have a clear and common vision of the issues involved. Of the numerous urban challenges, some pertain to very large cities, others to small municipalities, and others are common to all, but vary in urgency. Even when there is agreement on issues, as with the need for greater infrastructure funding, there is disagreement about who should be responsible.
Second, given the highly heterogeneous makeup of Canada's cities, their priorities are often different. As such, cities are hard pressed to present a united front and a single set of needs. Montreal, at the ripe old age of 362, is far more concerned about updating its timeworn water system than a city like Calgary, whose priority is building new transportation to support its rapid growth. A successful urban strategy in Canada must recognize that one size will not fit all.
In that regard, there is a tremendous opportunity for Toronto and Montreal as our two largest city regions to work much more closely together. Because of their size, age, geography and history, Montreal and Toronto share many of the same challenges. They must sustain their economic growth by building excellent education systems while also attracting the best skilled immigrants from across the globe. Both Montreal and Toronto are struggling with traffic congestion, the need to expand transit, reduce air pollution, address homelessness, and ensure that they can develop sustainable funding to renew aging infrastructure. At the same time, they are working on new economic and urban development approaches such as the revitalization of old industrial areas, the enhancement of green space in urban settings, and on supporting cultural vitality and diversity as a powerful lever of growth.
Both Toronto and Montreal have had major city summits in the past two years bringing together leaders from across civil society. At both those summits there was an exciting focus on new ideas to address emerging problems. Toronto, for example, has launched an Immigration Council which is sponsoring innovative programs to speed skilled immigrants into the workforce and a Research Alliance to increase high tech investment in the region. Montreal has set up the Société du Havre, which has put forward a concerted plan for the development of Montreal's harbourfront, and is now working towards innovative ways to fund this major project. The two cities can learn much from each other's experiences.
Toronto and Montreal are also reinventing their economies with increased focus on high technology in pharmaceuticals, biotech, communications, and computers as well as urban growth industries like global tourism. From an international perspective, the corridor from the Toronto region through Ottawa to Montreal is really a single high technology region. There is an enormous opportunity to market this high tech corridor internationally to corporate and venture capital investors. There is also significant potential in encouraging greater cross-fertilization among venture capitalists and angel investors across the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto region.
Other areas for Montreal and Toronto to cooperate are in global tourism marketing, the development of improved rail service between the two cities, and linkages between our leading edge research centres.
Given that Toronto and Montreal account for 25% of Canada's population, the public, business, and non-profit leadership of the two cities should also deliver a strong and coordinated message on the national policies needed to reinvent our cities. There will always be unique challenges in each city but the common challenges easily outweigh the differences.
The last quarter century was marked by rivalry between these two great metropolises. The 21st century should be marked as the century of Montreal-Toronto cooperation. Together the two cities can develop a powerful partnership that advances their mutual economic growth and shares the benefits of social and economic innovation across their city regions. This need not be through some broad formal arrangement. Just changing our mindset and reaching out to each other thinking of ourselves as players on the same team will set the stage for increased and fruitful collaboration.
In exercising strong joint leadership, Montreal and Toronto can play a decisive role in ushering Canada into the urban economy of the 21st century.