‘Montreal is in my DNA,’ Quebec’s economy minister insisted

The CAQ government has only two MNAs on the island, but in a wide-ranging interview, Pierre Fitzgibbon says he’s got Montrealers’ backs.

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One of the toughest jobs facing the Quebec minister responsible for Montreal is convincing Montrealers that he’s on their side.

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In a wide-ranging interview with the Montreal Gazette, Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon laid out his vision for Quebec’s most populous city and argued for unlocking its economic potential by reviving downtown and attracting more foreign investors to the east end.

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And while he acknowledged the dissatisfaction of many entrepreneurs with Bill 96, the controversial revamp of the province’s French language charter, the minister touted his government’s “flexibility” and wouldn’t commit to raising permanent immigration quotas — despite long-standing requests from business leaders grappling with a severe labor shortage.

“The most important thing for me is to be the voice in cabinet to ensure that Montreal is well represented,” Fitzgibbon said at his downtown office. “I am a native Montrealer. I grew up in Ahuntsic, and I have spent most of my working life in downtown Montreal. Montreal is in my DNA.”

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Fitzgibbon, the MNA for Terrebonne, became one of the most powerful members of Premier François Legault’s cabinet in October when he was confirmed as economy and innovation minister for the Coalition Avenir Québec’s second term — and awarded the energy portfolio as well as responsibility for Montreal and regional economic development. Many commentators now refer to him as the “super-minister” for the economy in a government that includes only two island of Montreal MNAs.

To maximize wealth creation, provincial and municipal authorities must step up efforts to draw foreign investment to Montreal’s east end, Fitzgibbon said. They must also recognize that downtown Montreal is unlikely to ever recover its entire pre-pandemic employee population due to the enduring popularity of teleworking, he added.

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“I very much want to include the east end when we promote Quebec internationally,” Fitzgibbon said. “When we speak with foreign investors, there’s very little talk about the east end. Right now, people don’t know how to get there. I think I can help (Montreal Mayor Valérie) Plante and her administration revitalize the east end. I have made this one of my priorities because it will serve the Quebec economy as well as Montreal.”

Downtown Montreal, which has lost much of its office worker base since March 2020, will be another key area of ​​focus for the minister.

“We must realize that downtown cores are no longer what they were before the pandemic,” Fitzgibbon said. “This has a lot of ramifications on how we manage real estate.”

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For instance, “there are a lot of discussions” about converting office buildings into residential properties, Fitzgibbon said, adding that repurposed office towers could also one day house schools, university classrooms or daycare centers.

“We have to stay open to this but at the same time, you can’t change the nature of downtown,” he said.

Since many employers are still adapting and refining their post-pandemic plans, “it’s too early to conclude that the commercial real estate offering is too large,” he stressed.

Fitzgibbon also had plenty to say about Quebec’s enduring labor shortage. Several ministers in the Legault government are working hard to improve vocational training and help re-qualify workers, he insisted.

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“Finding people will remain the biggest priority of the business community in 2023,” Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal head Michel Leblanc said in an interview last week.

Quebec had more than 248,000 unfilled jobs in the second quarter of 2022, a 2.4 per cent increase compared with the first quarter, seasonally adjusted Statistics Canada data show.

Of that number, “we probably have 100,000 vacant jobs that we should fill as soon as possible,” Fitzgibbon said. Solutions available to employers include hiring more indigenous people or individuals with disabilities, as well as foreign students and temporary foreign immigrants, he said.

“If there are jobs where there is no francophone expertise available, we are going to take temporary workers who speak English, with permits that will last two or three years,” he said. “The hope I have is that some of these people will stay here. Let’s help them learn French.”

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The one thing Fitzgibbon is unwilling to budge on — for now, at least — is permanent immigration quotas.

“Immigration is a very sensitive file,” he said. “This government has collectively taken the position that the preservation of the French language is important. We have to integrate our immigrants well. The number we have (for immigration quotas) is 50,000. One day maybe we can review it, but for now it’s 50,000.”

Bill 96 is another topic on which the CAQ government’s stance is at odds with that of Quebec business groups. The legislation has affected the province’s economic reputation abroad, Leblanc suggested.

“The reputational issue is important,” he said. “There are examples of foreign hires turning down jobs in Quebec because their spouses, who don’t speak French, thought they couldn’t find a job here. So a clarification of how Bill 96 is implemented will be required, as well as a change in the perception, if this perception is incorrect.”

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Fitzgibbon acknowledged the reputational hit, saying the CAQ government needs to be clearer in demonstrating how Bill 96 won’t restrict the ability of foreign employers to recruit non-French speakers.

“If there’s one person who can understand (Bill 96’s reputational impact), it’s me because in my job, I regard myself as Quebec’s chief of international development,” he said.

Other provincial governments “have used Bill 96” to denigrate Quebec, Fitzgibbon said without identifying them. “There’s been a bit of bashing. Perhaps we’re responsible in terms of communication, but I regularly talk to foreign CEOs who tell me: ‘Explain to me what Bill 96 is. What will the impact be on my company?’ It takes time, but when we explain things, people understand that within Bill 96, there is flexibility.”

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South Korea’s POSCO Chemical, which said in March it would team up with General Motors to build a US$400-million plant in Bécancour to make material for electric-vehicle batteries, “is a good example,” Fitzgibbon said. “There will be Koreans who speak a little bit of English who will come here. We need these people. We are flexible so that experts can speak the language of the company.”

Bill 96’s “raison d’être is to protect French, and there isn’t a foreigner who can be against that,” the minister added. “But there is work to do, and it’s up to (Finance Minister Eric) Girard and myself to explain things well and contextualize them.”

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