From its foundation by French settlers, Quebec City, the capital of the Canadian province that bears its name, was a magnet for lawyers, doctors and clergy. It was English-speaking Canada that did the rather uncivilised business of commerce; French Canada concerned itself with arts, culture and the sciences.

These predilections continue but Québécois realise they cannot ignore commerce. They have figured out they can make money from the arts – quite a lot of it in fact – and have built their economy on exploiting their naturally creative approach to commerce and science, resulting in thriving and innovative clusters in aeronautics, IT and biotech.

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It should come as little surprise, then, that one of the world’s best-known and most commercially successful creative arts groups sprung up out of this environment, quite literally on the streets of Quebec.

In the 1980s, Guy Laliberté was one of a rag-tag group of local street performers known as the the Baie-Saint-Paul Stiltwalkers, who juggled, danced, breathed fire, played music and walked on stilts around the small town near Quebec City. What is now known as Cirque du Soleil – of which Mr Laliberté is CEO – was set up in 1984 and has since grown into a sophisticated operation that employs 3800 people worldwide, including the 1000 performers who star in the company’s 13 running shows.

“We take creative risks and business risks,” says publicist Chantal Côté, while giving a tour of the company’s international headquarters in Montreal, where the size of the permanent workforce has tripled in the past eight years to 1700.

Cirque du Soleil is a very Québécois phenomenon, says Jacques Daoust, head of Invest Quebec. In case no one has noticed, he is happy to point out: “Most of the big shows in Vegas – O, LOVE, Celine Dion – are from Quebec.”

Games development

Gaming, which combines visual arts, leisure and technology, is also a good fit for Quebec’s creative competencies. It is a young industry, but growing fast. Analysts predict worldwide revenues of $60bn by 2011.

Paris-based Ubisoft set up a studio 10 years ago in an old textiles district of Montreal that is now buzzing with cafes and chic shops – and employs 1700 people, plus 150 more in Quebec City. “Montreal is becoming a world hotbed of games development activity,” says communications director Cedric Orvine.

Games development is the primary function of Ubisoft’s Montreal studio, although there is also a business section that is focused on selling and promoting the games. The average age of employees is 29 years old, and, unsurprisingly, 85% are male.

The biggest project at the moment, with 150 staff working on it, is the development of a game called Assassin’s Creed, due for a Christmas launch. Budget-wise, it will be bigger than any movie production ever made in Canada, says Mr Orvine.

Hardly child’s play – but the balance to be struck in such an industry is between a serious approach to the bottom line and youthful sense of fun about the product. “This is a very, very serious business,” he says. “But you need to keep that magic element to it.”