A place apart

It's cheap, but Quebec has its own business culture.

It's been said that statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. And so it is with the numbers behind our annual ranking of Canada's best cities for business.

According to our survey, Quebec's Saguenay region comes out on top — but what the list doesn't show is that Saguenay is also strongly French-speaking. In fact, 99.7% of its population speak Canada's second official language at home, compared with just 0.2% who speak English. Nothing unusual about that — but it means the region is likely not the first place most English-Canadian companies would consider when looking for a place to locate a new business unit.

It's a matter of economic common sense. There are costs to operating in a language that isn't your own, after all. And studies have found that regions with the same language trade more — even if they are farther from each other or are involved in other trade agreements — because a common tongue lowers transaction costs while promoting trust and rapport. It's a fact of business that Quebec has always known.

The province maintains nine government bureaus and trade offices throughout the European Union, far more than the number of offices maintained by Alberta (2) and Ontario (1). And the effort has paid off, at least in the case of France. According to statistics from the Canadian Embassy in Paris, Quebec attracts the lion's share of Franco-Canadian trade, with 46% of the total, compared with Ontario, which has 33%.

The business links go both ways. Messier-Dowty, a subsidiary of French aerospace giant Snecma, makes the landing gear for the Airbus 380, one of the most distinctly European of products, in Montreal. And Quebec's Saguenay region, a recognized leader in aluminum production and research (it accounts for roughly 5% of total world output), is a base for Alcan, the company that last year took over Paris-based Pechiney in a US$4.5-billion acquisition.

A new political landscape has emerged in Canada in the wake of the last federal election, which saw the the Bloc Québécois emerge with enhanced power. In the five months since the election of his minority Liberal government, Prime Minister Paul Martin has signed a health-care accord that contains a separate side deal for Quebec, and the phrase “asymmetrical federalism” has come into circulation. As well, Martin recently asked Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe to accompany him to the Francophonie summit in Burkina Faso in late November — something Jean Chrétien made a point of refusing to do.

Need further proof of Quebec's growing influence on the international stage and the 180-degree turn in government policy? Heritage Minister Liza Frulla has said that Quebec Culture Minister Line Beauchamp could speak on behalf of Canada at UNESCO when Frulla can't make it. And in mid-November, Quebec Premier Jean Charest led 94 Quebec business leaders on a trade mission to Mexico arm-in-arm with Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister of France. It was the first time Canada has allowed Quebec to undertake a joint trade mission with France.

The trip seems to confirm what the economists tell us: that language will to some extent determine with whom we do business. And on that point business owners in English Canada who wouldn't dream of considering Saguenay as a place to relocate may have more in common with Quebec nationalists than they think.