Manon Vennat has been called ``the queen bee of Quebec capitalism.'' Although this expression causes Mrs. Vennat to wince a little, it is somewhat appropriate, because she was recently installed as president of Montreal's Board of Trade - the first woman to hold that office in the 164-year history of the predominantly Anglophone business organization in this bilingual city.
The title also has merit because Vennat is an enthusiastic capitalist.
``All governments have come to realize that it is the private sector that will build the economy and not the government,'' she said in an interview here. The government can only create a good climate for business.
Anglophones once dominated the business structure of Montreal and had considerable clout in provincial political affairs.
But in recent years, the Board has seen some hard times. French-Canadian separatism and a tough language law promoting French in the 1970s, encouraged many English-speaking Montrealers to flee with their businesses for Toronto or other cities to the west. Some bilingual businessmen joined the Chambre de Commerce serving the French-speaking business community, which has developed into a vital organization with some 6,000 members. The Board's number of corporate members dwindled from 3,100 prior to the 1982 recession to 2,600 by 1984.
Today the rivalry between the two organizations has softened. Most large companies are members of both organizations. The two have cooperated in various efforts to promote Montreal and deal with city problems. Moreover, the Board of Trade has enjoyed a revival, with its corporate membership now around 3,000.
Significantly, the Board's president is a French-Canadian. Her election reflects the weakening of the Anglophone bias against Francophones. Vennat is perfectly bilingual. She obtained a law degree from Montreal's English-speaking McGill University in 1965 and a master's in public law from the mostly French-speaking University of Ottawa in 1969.
Vennat quit a federal civil-service job to launch a quasi-public consulting institute to help business deal with Quebec's language laws. She then became general consul of AES Data Inc. and shortly thereafter its vice-president for administration. This fall, she became vice-president of a headhunting firm.
Vennat is also something of a radio star. She is part of a panel on a national radio show that discusses social trends for an audience in the millions.
Reflecting her new office, Vennat is a keen promoter for Montreal, the world's second-largest French-speaking city after Paris. ``Montreal is doing a lot better than in the recession,'' she says. ``There is a new optimism.''
There is also something of a downtown building boom, with more than $650 million of new offices under construction, and a plan to make the city an international financial and banking center.
Already, Vennat claims, the city is the third-largest port on the North American East Coast. And she talks of Montreal becoming a high-technology area. She notes the advantage of its bilingual character, able to serve both the English- and French-speaking world.
As a member of the executive committee of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Vennat is now in line to become the first woman president of Canada's most influential business organization.