At home, Pauline Marois may be dealing with the consequences of broken campaign promises and the aftermath of a corruption scandal.
But high above midtown Manhattan on Thursday afternoon, in a rooftop ballroom packed to capacity, those concerns seemed far away as investors greeted her with a standing ovation and frank curiosity.
In New York, Quebec’s new Premier is a bit of a novelty. After all, it’s not every day that a separatist leader comes to town touting free trade, balanced budgets and an open door for foreign investment. On her first trip to the United States as Premier, Ms. Marois dispensed with her government’s aspirations to independence in a few short lines at the start of her lunchtime address.
“As you know, I hope the people of Quebec will one day be a part of the concert of nations,” she said at an event organized by the Foreign Policy Association. “This is an internal debate. This will happen when Quebeckers are ready.”
Then she proceeded to spend roughly 30 minutes on her main topic: a description of Quebec’s allure for investors, from the province’s all-but-balanced budget to its new tax holidays for large investments to its strong support for freer trade. She also underlined the long ties between Quebec and New York, including one dear to her financially oriented audience: Back in 1879, she said, Quebec was the first foreign issuer of bonds on Wall Street, a move celebrated as a snub to the city of London.
Investors gave her speech a warm reception. “It is excellent for Quebec and Canada to be visible here,” said Daniel Arbess, a partner at Perella Weinberg Partners, a boutique investment bank. Such occasions serve to remind investors that New York’s ties with Quebec span a wide range of areas – particularly hydro-electric power, he said.
He didn’t think investors would be unnerved by the forthright talk of independence, noting that the question has been put directly to the people of Quebec several times. “At this stage of history, investors tend to be concerned on more immediate questions,” he said.
Another topic that doesn’t appear to have gained much traction south of the border: the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in publicly funded construction projects. Quebec International Relations Minister Jean-François Lisée, who is travelling with Ms. Marois and spent time in Washington this week, said he was surprised to discover the issue wasn’t top of mind in his U.S. meetings.
“We were very worried about the damage it might have caused to the reputation of Montreal,” Mr. Lisée said in a telephone interview. But “with busy people, it hasn’t been as shocking as we thought.”
During her two-day visit to New York, Ms. Marois is meeting with a major U.S. bank, a large pharmaceutical company that is considering expanding its presence in Quebec and a transportation company close to announcing an investment in the province, Mr. Lisée said.
Earlier on Thursday, the Premier inaugurated the first of a new series of business centres aimed at helping Quebec companies expand internationally. The initiative, dubbed Expansion Quebec, offers office space and sales assistance.
Ms. Marois toured the office and watched a demonstration by Smart-Use, one of the first Quebec companies to use the centre as a base of operations. The firm provides touch-enabled software for engineering professionals.
She noted that there are already 200 Quebec companies with operations in New York state employing more than 6,000 people. The state is also the destination for 9 per cent of Quebec’s exports.
During her lunchtime talk at the St. Regis Hotel, Ms. Marois was seated at a large oval table under giant chandeliers, surrounded by such notables as Michael Sabia, CEO of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, John Prato, Canada’s consul-general in New York, and Ali Velshi, a CNN correspondent and Toronto native.
Mr. Sabia introduced her to the audience, which included representatives of Alcoa, Bombardier, HSBC and Royal Bank of Canada. Ms. Marois is “a woman of conviction, a woman of determination,” he said.