Six weeks ago, police in Montreal were impounding cars affiliated with Uber, the ride-sharing outfit, and the provincial Transport Minister was musing about suspending their driver's licences.
Now Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard – nudged by his party's youth wing – is thinking aloud about legalizing the U.S.-based company, provided it operates on a level playing field with taxis and other competitors.
Not exactly a full retreat, then, but it is an opening. Conciliatory noises are emanating from Uber's representative in Montreal; the company is offering to kick a per-ride levy back to the province and provide driver logs for sales-tax purposes.
That said, the fight over ride-sharing and competition in the taxi business is not over. The City of Montreal's crackdown continues apace, several lawsuits are pending, and cabbies have engaged in all manner of skulduggery to derail the upstarts. And Uber still isn't agreeing to pay taxes or submit its drivers to more stringent regulation.
But while the maxim holds you can't fight City Hall, it's equally pointless to fight progress.
Since Uber rolled into town, something has been happening to Montreal's famously sclerotic taxi industry: rapid and profound change. Cab companies have revamped their mobile apps, and in a few weeks every driver in the city will – at long last – accept electronic payment. The airport authority, meanwhile, is instituting a dress code for cabbies and limits on the age of their vehicles.
And earlier this month, a well-known Quebec venture capitalist scooped up Montreal's second-largest cab company. He is promising a digital platform to rival Uber's, plus free Wi-Fi and an all-electric, 2,000-vehicle fleet by 2019.
There is also a move afoot to create a professional association with stricter licensing, a code of conduct and a complaints mechanism (a similar plan failed in 2000). It feels like the beginnings of a competitive market, as opposed to a rigid monopoly.
It's appropriate to demand that Uber play fair, but the rules of the game should themselves be fair and designed to benefit consumers. Quebec should kick the door all the way open to the innovative company and outfits like it. Political leaders elsewhere in Canada should feel emboldened to enable the innovators rather than erect roadblocks to keep them out.