Skip to main content
global commerce

Infrastructure investment, such as new light-rail transit cars, has revived Bordeaux, France.David Israelson/The Globe and Mail

Virginie Bernat remembers this city before it had an infrastructure makeover.

"Bordeaux used to be a dump. You wouldn't realize it now that it's beautiful," says Ms. Bernat, a 41-year-old tour guide who grew up here, moved away and returned.

"Those stone buildings you see were all covered in black from pollution. You couldn't get to the river. There were warehouses all along the water and a fence that was locked. It never changed."

Bordeaux is back, thanks to an infrastructure renewal that may point to opportunities elsewhere for Canadian exporters – not necessarily just here but all around the world. While there is incessant talk in Canada about the need for major infrastructure spending and improvement at home, there is also an export market overseas for Canadian knowhow and expertise in this area.

The market in Europe for Canadian consultants, engineers and construction firms still has some opportunities, and groups such as the Canadian Urban Institute say there is a huge need for infrastructure renewal at home.

But Canadian and European opportunities can be dwarfed by those available in developing countries, says John Farrow, chair of Lea Group Holdings Inc., a Markham, Ont.-based engineering service company.

His firm is active in India, where there are plans to build or refurbish 400 railway stations, complete about 150 toll roads and construct a new state capital in a region that is splitting into two states. Mumbai alone needs to invest millions of dollars over the next 20 years just to keep up with its growing population, Mr. Farrow says.

"My sense is that in Europe there is slow growth and the British, French and Spanish companies are coming to India [along with Canadians]," says Mr. Farrow. The Japanese government is also co-funding a huge industrial development program on the corridor between Mumbai and New Delhi.

Not that Canadians are being ignored in Bordeaux. In an interview in the French magazine La Revue du Trombinoscope, Alain Juppé, the mayor credited for much of the city's infrastructure renewal, said he has been looking at environment-related infrastructure initiatives in Quebec.

"For example, our friends in Quebec have developed a simple tool to diagnose your residential power consumption," said Mr. Juppé, also a former French prime minister.

His city has always been known as the crossroads for the wine trade, but by the dawn of the 21st century, it was a city of faded glory.

"They had the same mayor for 48 years [before Mr. Juppé]," says Paolo St-Laurent, a transplanted Montrealer who runs a bicycle rental business here. "Then they got a new one and the city is very different."

Today, a set of sleek light-rail transit cars, with no overhead wires, glides by scrubbed city walls and glistening rococo limestone buildings. The LRT turns almost silently onto a tree-lined thoroughfare and then bends onward next to a wide, inviting river walk, filled with pedestrians and cyclists.

On the Garonne River, framed by two distinctive bridges – one from 1823 and the other a high-tech lift bridge opened in 2013 – passers-by are just as likely to see barges toting aircraft fuselages upriver as they are to see river and ocean-going cruise ships. The regional aerospace industry supports about 20,000 jobs and the city draws about 3 million tourists a year.

The revival is still continuing. Bordeaux's main train station is covered in scaffolding, as France's national railway upgrades its already-speedy Paris-Bordeaux TGV line so that by 2017 it will cover the 584-kilometre distance in a mere two hours.

Yet for all the activity in southwestern France, Lea Group's Mr. Farrow says the opportunities are greater in places like India.

"We've been working on redevelopment plans for five railway stations in Mumbai. Think of [Toronto's] Union Station as at the smaller end of what's being considered there," he says.

"There's opportunity for Canadian consultants, engineers and for Canadian developers and pension funds that might want to back them. The receptiveness of the host nation is there and the need is there," Mr. Farrow adds.

He says that infrastructure opportunities in India are huge now because ties with Canada are warming fast.

A new Canada-India trade agreement has been drafted and Canada's Prime Minister and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne are scheduled to visit India early next year.

European opportunities might increase for Canadians when the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) negotiated between Canada and the European Union takes effect. At the same time, suppliers of heavy equipment such as rail cars might come up against procurement rules that stack the deck in favour of local or national companies.

"You need good professional advice from accounting firms and law firms," Mr. Farrow says. He also says it is important to understand the tax treaties between Canada and the target country, to know when profits can be taken out legally.

Whether working in Europe or Asia or anywhere else, Mr. Farrow says that Canadian companies and professionals are particularly well suited to export their infrastructure goods and skills.

"Here's one of the secrets of our success: We take Canadian expertise, we hire local expertise and we work as a team," he says.

Interact with The Globe