The hangover from the 1995 sovereignty referendum was not pretty for Montreal. Half a year after a vote that brought Canada to within a sliver of possible breakup, Quebec’s biggest city was left badly shredded.
Its 11% unemployment rate was the highest in urban North America. Residential real estate prices were falling. The vacancy rate for downtown office towers topped 20%. Companies like Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. continued their slow head-office exodus. One Toronto property broker trying to drum up business ran ads in Montreal newspapers that read: “When the road leads you away from Montreal to Toronto, we’ll be at the other end to make you feel right at home.”
There were larger pan-Canadian consequences too, of course. Amid the constitutional crisis, lenders demanded higher interest rates to hold Canada’s debt. That November the dollar fell a cent and a half as post-referendum optimism vanished amid a realization that Canada’s unity problem remained unsolved.
Today, nine years of Liberal Party rule have restored a certain level of stability to the city and to the province as the federalist party wooed private enterprise and buried unity disagreements with Ottawa. But as Quebecers get set to vote again Sept. 4, the corporate world is bracing for change.
“It’s the first time in my life that I sense from the business community a concern this large about the result of an election and the aftermath,” said Yves-Thomas Dorval, head of the Conseil du Patronat, Quebec’s largest business lobby. “There is a lot of worry that the climate for reinvestment won’t be the same.”