(Montreal) “I think we have an opportunity to seize to redefine our relations with the international, between the cities and the provincial, with the federal because in the end, what we want is that our cities shine, may Quebec shine. »
It is in these words that the Mayor of Gatineau, France Bélisle, summarized the reasons why cities must invest in international activity, during a conference on Wednesday, in front of some 400 guests gathered at the invitation of the Council on International Relations of Montreal (CORIM).
Ms. Bélisle participated in a round table on the subject of municipal diplomacy with her counterparts from Montreal, Valérie Plante, from Quebec, Bruno Marchand, and from Sherbrooke, Évelyne Beaudin. It was also striking to note that three of the four leaders of these large Quebec cities were women, a sign of an important changing of the guard in the Quebec municipal world.
Admittedly, the international activity of these four cities varies greatly, Montreal, for example, being in a rather special situation, being home to 70 international organizations and six headquarters of United Nations organizations. Even so, Ms. Plante explained that even for the metropolis, international business has completely transformed since the days of twin cities.
“We’ve moved from more symbolic relationships to something much more tactical now. We enter into networks. We are less in the bilateral, more in the multilateral”, she argued, taking as an example the creation of C40, which brings together the mayors and mayors of 94 large cities from 49 countries who have given themselves their own objectives of fight against climate change.
“It’s a way for big cities around the world to be able to say to other levels of government: if we are able to do it at the city level, what are we waiting for to shake up the things, move faster, at the state level? »
Bruno Marchand, first magistrate of Quebec, however warned that if the cities can very well use the international to put pressure on the governments, they have no interest in positioning themselves as a counter-power.
“Faced with the current government, we do not want to play the game of counter-power. That does not mean that we are always in agreement, but this question of counter-powers is very uncomfortable for cities because 70, 75, 80% of what comes from cities excluding taxes comes from the government of Quebec for a road, for a park, for adaptation to climate change, for the economy. So playing counterbalance with your banker is not super fun,” he remarked.
Mr. Marchand, recently returned from a trip to Scandinavia which he had to defend against some criticism, argued that it is necessary to go out, to look elsewhere to learn best practices to avoid stagnation. “We love so much to be unique, we love so much to be extraordinary, we love so much to be good, grandiose, grandiloquent, to say that we don’t need to learn from others and finally, this false virtue that we grant ourselves makes so that we slow down. Because to find oneself extraordinary, not to compare oneself, necessarily one does not see the opportunities to learn. »
The mayoress of Sherbrooke, Évelyne Beaudin, however, brought all these beautiful people “on the ground of the cows”, according to her expression. Cities do not all have the same means, she argued, stressing that monitoring in international matters was only the responsibility of elected officials, in her case. “If the government financed us, subsidized the salaries of employees who would be dedicated to international relations, I think that they themselves would benefit from the fact that we have permanent expertise and we would benefit from it because not everything would be to be rebuilt at each election. »
Also, she recalled, Quebec has 1,100 municipalities, some of which are so small that the international is the least of their concerns. To illustrate her point, she recounted a recent visit to the village of Saint-Denis-De La Bouteillerie, in Kamouraska. “When you have one and a half employees in your municipality, because you have 515 people, and your biggest issue is a sewer odor problem in your village center, international relations is really, really far. How do you want to face the challenges of the 21st century when you’re living off the hook of the state for the smallest dollar? »
Never mind, Bruno Marchand believes that it is up to the big cities to assume their responsibilities and to bring with them representatives of smaller municipalities. Because the opportunities are there, he insists. “When we were in Finland, the entrepreneurs told us: it’s time more than ever to do business with us because we don’t do business with Russia anymore and we won’t do business development anymore in China. Finland is turning to new markets. »
France Bélisle, for her part, amused the audience by explaining why she had still not traveled. “Not yet, I’m trying to secure my votes on city council before I move internationally!” “, she launched. Ms. Bélisle, elected as an independent, must indeed face elected officials, some of whom are grouped in a well-organized opposition. On the other hand, she points out that she meets on an ongoing basis with several ambassadors based in the neighboring federal capital. “It sounds mundane, but it allows you to establish lasting foundations that are not just public relations, but which become human relations that allow economic development, cultural development. »