Denis Coderre's love affair with China

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has made a concerted effort to court Chinese investment during his time in office. A new daily, direct flight between Montreal and Shanghai might be a sign the strategy is working.

Montreal's mayor is courting Chinese investment, tourists and immigrants. Is it working?

Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, left, presents Chinese Premier Li Keqiang with a key to his city Friday, September 23, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

No stranger to the click of cameras, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre flashed a big, toothy grin while handing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang a key to the city on Friday.

It was part two of the Montreal leg of Li's publicity tour. In the morning, Coderre accompanied Li and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the Bell Centre, where they met former members of the Montreal Canadiens.

Coderre's presence at the photo-ops was no surprise. He has made a clear, concerted effort to court the foreign power during his time in office.

When Air Canada announced its first daily, direct flight between Montreal and Shanghai on Friday, the mayor didn't hesitate to take full credit.

"In a way, it is a concrete result from the trade mission I led in China last year," said Coderre.

The Air Canada flight is now the second direct flight operating between Montreal and China. This time last year, Air China began three flights a week to Beijing from Trudeau International.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre pose for a team photo with young hockey players and veteran Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal. (The Canadian Press)

Coderre's 'political will' to attract Chinese investment 

Coderre's efforts to cozy up to the Chinese are well-documented.

In June 2015, he 'expressed his admiration for China's development and achievements' in a meeting with the country's ambassador to Canada, Luo Zhaohui.

In March, Coderre was the speaker at a sold-out dinner hosted by the Canada-China Business Council.

But the most notable example of Coderre's hustle to attract Chinese investment was a trade mission to China last fall. Accompanied by a delegation of 70, the mayor boasted of signing nine contracts in two days while abroad.

"If we want to do business, especially with China, a trustworthy relationship must be in place and we have to exhibit a political will," he said.

That political will, though, comes at a cost. Coderre faced criticism earlier this year for the hefty price tag of his administration's ambitious itinerary. 

Between November 2013 and January 2016, his government spent $200,000 in travel expenses, taking 85 trips to five different continents. 

Guillaume Lavoie, an opposition councillor with Projet Montréal, said that figure doesn't include other expenses incurred during business trips, such as accommodations for staff who are not elected officials.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Lavoie at the time.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks to a Chinese-Canadian business luncheon in Montreal on Friday. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

What is the payoff?

Whether intentionally or not, Montreal has piqued the interest of would-be immigrants and tourists from China, according to Jocelyn Kao, a real-estate agent who commutes between China and Montreal.

Since 1994, she's held seminars in China hoping to make Chinese fall in love with snowy Montreal. Business was steady, until the last couple of years — when it exploded.

"In Montreal, it's really improved a lot. But we're so far behind Toronto and Vancouver," she said.

She cites additional flights as a reason why her business has seen growth — growth that has also been seen in the tourism industry.

Nearly 62,000 Chinese tourists visited Quebec last year, which represents an increase of 15 per cent from 2014.

Almost 84,000 visitors are expected to arrive in 2016.

On June 2, 2015, China's Ambassador to Canada, Luo Zhaohui, met with Denis Coderre in Montreal. (Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Canada)

Vancouver's foreign buying tax could be Montreal's gain 

Other factors are in place that could encourage more Chinese investment in Quebec. Some real estate experts believe Montreal is among the cities that stand to gain from Vancouver's new tax on foreign property buyers.  

"Certainly I think Toronto and potentially other markets like Montreal will start to become more attractive, because comparatively speaking they will be less expensive,'' said Brad Henderson, president and CEO of Sotheby's International Realty Canada.

With Toronto currently mulling a foreign-buyer tax of its own, Montreal could be next in line for Chinese buyers eyeing Canadian opportunities.