What's most surprising about Premier Jean Charest's remark that Quebec has the economic means to be independent is not the remark itself but the response to it.
Some media reports have treated the federalist premier's comment as a great concession, and Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair even suggests it adds credence to sovereignty.
I saw Charest's remark as hardly newsworthy. Every federalist I know has assumed for years that a separate Quebec was economically feasible.
The question is not whether such a country could exist, but whether the average Quebec citizen's standard of living would improve or shrink.
I'll skip the mumbo jumbo about GDP, debt and credit rating that always dominates debate on these questions - an approach that's too abstract to settle the question in many people's minds.
For me, the easiest way to tell whether Quebec would be better off in or out of Canada is to look at things demographically. I call this Common Sense 101.
Everyone knows that for any society to work well it needs workers - people who pay the bulk of taxes. Yet schools are closing across the province for lack of students, and in a few years this will mean fewer workers. All demographers foresee a big drop. The Institut de la statistique du Quebec, for one, says the number of people of working age (between 20 and 64 years) might start dwindling in six years. By 2031, their numbers could fall by fully 10 per cent.
Granted, Quebec's total population, according to these same projections, would grow by four per cent. But most of this increase would be among retirees.
We've all heard about how this trend will put a strain on workers - about how they'll soon have to pay more in taxes to foot the baby boomers' pensions and medical care. Yet what has not been publicized is sovereignty's impact on this.
The Institut's forecast, grim as it is, posits a Quebec that is still part of Canada. It assumes roughly the same number of people will migrate to the province, as at present and, thus, partly offset our lack of births.
If Quebec were to quit Canada, the dearth of workers would hit more quickly and be more severe. Much more.
No one has challenged me when I've written this before. Most francophone media ignore the idea, and the myth endures that an independent Quebec will brim with prosperity. Witness how, in the face of a furor, PQ leadership candidate Pauline Marois last year had to back off from her mild prediction that sovereignty would bring five years of turbulence.
The health of the economy and of the tax base depends upon Quebec's ability to attract many more people from other provinces and countries than who leave Quebec for elsewhere - what's called net migration. To suggest sovereignty would impair this ability is not gloom-mongering; it is learning from history.
As the graph shows, net migration to Quebec has plummeted twice in the last quarter-century: first, after the 1976 election of the Parti Quebecois and, second, after 1990, when the Meech Lake accord collapsed and a series of nationally divisive events got under way. In the face of political uncertainty, companies established in Quebec left, as did workers, and people who might have immigrated from other countries didn't.
Note, too, it took about a decade for migration to revive to prior levels - twice as long as Marois's prediction.
Nor is it hysterical conjecture to suggest the post-separation decline would be worse than in these past cases. The reality of a new country is more alarming than the mere possibility of one. The depleted workforce would shoulder the costs of caring for seniors, meaning fewer people would share the tax load.
Quebec's taxes are already North America's highest. Why on Earth would anyone want to immigrate to a country where taxes were even higher than now? I can see our ad campaign abroad: "Come to Quebec for the joy of paying back North America's highest debt and to pay for the medical care of old folks you don't even know."
Yes, an independent Quebec could exist economically. But it could not thrive for a long time. That's common sense.
Henry Aubin is The Gazette's regional-affairs columnist.
Of course Quebec could survive on its own, but it wouldn't thrive
Independence would drain province of workers it needs for true prosperity