MONTREAL - With her party tied for first place in the latest poll, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois announced on Sunday the creation of a 12-member committee to promote sovereignty. She will chair it. She said the panel might, among other things, order studies on an independent Quebec’s impact on education, health and the environment – and whatever other matters are important.
Oh, here’s one. Let me suggest a credible study on sovereignty’s effect on the Montreal economy.
The chance of her committee accepting this: nil.
The committee’s vice-chairman, Bloc Québécois leader Daniel Paillé, let the cat out of the bag. He said that studies would be part of a “pedagogical push that is essential to convince a majority of Québécois and Québécoises about sovereignty’s validity.” Not too clever, that statement. Rule No. 1 about ordering a study tailoring the evidence to fit a pre-ordained conclusion: Don’t trumpet the fact.
I’ve long been intrigued at how many intelligent Montrealers espouse sovereignty without acknowledging the problems it would bring to Montreal. I’m thinking, for example, of people like Marois, Paillé, the leaders of both of Montreal’s opposition parties (Louise Harel and Richard Bergeron) and many of the city’s sharpest academics and journalists.
Oh, I take back the inclusion of Marois in this army of the mute. In 2005, before becoming party leader, she blurted out that sovereignty might bring five years of economic “turbulence.” This triggered such torrid denial from within the party that neither she nor any other Péquiste has ever again suggested sovereignty would bring anything but roses.
To be sure, it’s quite possible, if not probable, that sovereignty would cause no economic problems in certain regions of Quebec that depend on natural resources. (Mining and forestry companies don’t much care what kind of government is in charge so long as the rocks, trees and local workers are still there.) Note, too, that Quebec City might even come out ahead, given the public-sector bureaucracy that the capital of the new republic would inherit from Ottawa.
But Montreal, which accounts for half of Quebec’s population and which Péquiste politicians grant is the locomotive of Quebec’s economy, is another story. Erased from public acknowledgment is the epic outflow of knowledge workers and employers – much of the tax base – at the time of 1980 and 1995 referendums.
This history helps explain why Montreal is once again dead-last on the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal’s annual ranking of the 31 largest metropolitan regions in Canada and the U.S. on the basis of GDP per capita. It’s also a factor in the city of Montreal’s precarious finances. And these past outflows might well be mild compared to an exodus that outright separation would cause.
The extent to which the sovereignist establishment ignores this reality is pathetic to the point of being amusing.
Let me tell you about a colloquium last spring at UQÀM sponsored by a purportedly brainy group, the Intellectuels pour la souveraineté. The title of the session was “Montreal in an Independent Quebec.” “Aha,” I thought naively, “maybe finally I’ll hear some straight talk.” I hotfooted over.
Paillé was a speaker. The economy would bloom, he said: Think of all the new government institutions – and public-sector jobs – that Quebec would get. He never alluded to the heart of the matter: The effect that sovereignty might have on private investment.
It’s not as though Paillé is an ignoramus. He’s a former business professor and a ex-PQ industry minister.
Another speaker was Maka Kotto, the PQ MNA. He addressed the giant priority of Quebec getting more immigrants to replace its retiring baby-boomer workforce. He said that, with Quebec and Ottawa no longer sharing responsibility over immigration, Quebec would be better at selecting immigrants. And it would make sure they learned French.
No mention of why many immigrants would want to come to a land of turbulence in the first place. Or why, too, they would want to come to a land of remarkably high taxes. (The per-capita tax burden would probably rise because of Quebec’s high debt, the departure of many of its more mobile taxpayers because of independence, an end to transfer payments from western Canadians and the need to care for one of North America’s most elderly populations.)
Yet the audience of intellectuals warmly applauded these strenuously evasive presentations.
See what I mean? Sad and laughable at the same time.
Go ahead, Madame Marois, I dare you. Order a study on sovereignty’s impact on Montreal’s economy. An honest study.