Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Sun Life Giveth and Sun Life Taketh Away

A postcard of the Sun Life building in Montreal dated 1942. 

The Sun Life insurance company is moving its headquarters from Toronto’s iconic Bay Street—the heart of the city’s financial district—to a new building on the waterfront, which has yet to be built, the Globe and Mail is reporting. This is supposed to be big news because it heralds the incipient decline of one street’s preeminence in the making-money-out-of-money industry. 

But the last time Sun Life switched head offices, it changed the fortunes not just of a symbolically important thoroughfare, but of Canada’s two biggest cities. In 1978—not 1976, as the Globe has it—the insurance megalith announced that it was leaving its longtime home in Montreal because of the Parti Québécois’s new language laws and moving to Toronto. 

This was, to quote a phrase, a big fucking deal. Montreal was still the financial capital of Canada, Toronto a relative backwater. The Montreal Gazette devoted most of its front page to the news. Then-provincial finance minister Jacques Parizeau threatened “moral blackmail” against the company and called for legislation to claw back Sun Life profits. Even federal finance minister Jean Chrétien chimed in, pronouncing himself “disappointed.” 

Quebec’s political elite had good reason to panic: the move was a harbinger, pre-empting the flight of over two dozen companies down the 401, including most of the country’s big banks. Montreal’s Sun Life building was an icon of the city’s prosperity—completed in 1931, it was once the tallest building in the British Commonwealth. Even today, its grand, wedding-cake style evokes Gilded Age exuberance; police chiefs chatting up tycoons in plush penthouse offices, chomping on cigars. 

But Montreal’s loss was Toronto’s gain: Bay Street is synonymous with towering skyscrapers and titans of industry because Sun Life and its followers picked up sticks and moved there. It seems fitting that the same company would lead the march, Pied Piper-style, away from the street it made.