The end of the Ottawa-Quebec ‘Bidding War’

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The Article

It has always seemed outrageous to me that although Montreal accounts for one-third of Quebec’s voters, 55% of the province’s economic output, both of its major research universities, almost all of the province’s knowledge-based industries and more than three-quarters of its exports, the city controls only one-quarter of the seats in the province’s National Assembly.

The very first op-ed I ever had published in the Post—in December 1998—argued for the creation of a new party, a Bloc Montreal. Although the primary mandate of my putative Bloc Montreal would have been to fight for Montreal’s (and therefore Quebec’s) economic interests, I argued that this Canada-friendly option would also liberate Montreal federalists from electoral thrall to the Liberals, hardly distinguishable in their Canada-hostile whinging from the separatists.

A Bloc Montreal has the potential to give the virtues of federalism their due and put ethnic nationalism on the defensive, but it’s never going to happen. My op-ed was just a cri du coeur, born of frustration from watching the same petrified horses on the same political carousel galloping nowhere for more than 40 years.

Many of the best credentialled minds in Canada have applied themselves to the question “What does Quebec want?” from a variety of perspectives. One such is Brian Lee Crowley, founding president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank. Crowley’s new book, Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values, will be published in September (Key Porter).

The fluently bilingual Crowley has the smarts, the education and the experience of living and working in Quebec to enter the debate with (unlike myself ) scholarly authority. I read his information-dense but reader-friendly manuscript in draft form with keen interest some months ago. Here’s what his chapter on Quebec comes down to:

The effects of the Boomer generation hugely enhanced Quebec’s bargaining power within Confederation. Quebec had the largest boom, but francophones’ unilingualism restricted access to private-sector jobs. The Quiet Revolution responded by vastly expanding public sector employment. Thus the new generation perceived their national future as inextricably linked with the Quebec “state.”

Galvanized into competition for hearts and minds, Ottawa began a 40-year “Bidding War” for young francophones within the federal public sector. The Bidding War made it easier in Quebec than elsewhere to live off the state, producing the predictable pathologies: declining work ethic, low economic growth, broken families, falling fertility, low productivity, aggressive interest groups and high out-migration. Add the “Quebec model” of economic development to the mix, and the “distinct society” is distinctly failing to keep up with central and Western Canada.

Crowley sees in Quebec’s future a continuing economic and population decline, but crucially as well a weakening in Quebec’s bargaining power. Never mind those 40% support figures for independence. With Quebec’s economy so fragile, outright independence is a non-starter amongst all serious political observers.

Demographics are not friendly to the independence project either. By 2031, Stats-Can projects that Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia will comprise two-thirds of Canada’s population, with Quebec falling below 21%, at which point a majority federal government can be formed with three quarters of the votes in those other three provinces.

Meanwhile, with Boomers retiring, and jobs available to all who want them, areas mired in low productivity and dependence may find transfers on a massive scale more difficult to justify.

In an email interview, Crowley projected this scenario: “Playing the separatist card will only further alienate voters in the ROC, who will find the threat increasingly incredible. And because the Bidding War will be passe, Ottawa will find it less and less necessary to use its spending power to make its presence felt in social policy, especially in Quebec.

That opens the door to a good solution: Ottawa will cede jurisdiction over a lot of social policy, and cede the tax room it uses to finance that spending to the provinces. In return, Ottawa will demand that the provinces get out of national economic management and especially out of the trade barrier game. Ottawa will seize the power to tear down economic barriers between Canadians, while leaving the provinces free to order social policy largely as they like. Interestingly, on any plain reading of the BNA Act, this was to have been the deal that we originally struck in 1867. Back to the future, as they say …”

Head spinning yet? Mine is. But not in a bad way. Realism is energizing. Watching a merry-go-round of superannuated political horses galloping nowhere to the jingoistic strains of “More, More, More” only makes you nauseous.

Barbara Kay
Latest posts by Barbara Kay (see all)

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