The abrupt and mysterious dismissal of Bruno Fortier as Quebec's delegate-general in New York raises plenty of questions, which the government is resolutely refusing to answer. Why, exactly, was he canned? After all, somebody who has been a friend of Premier Jean Charest since boyhood doesn't get shunted out of such a plum job so suddenly, after less than a year, for spitting on the sidewalk. Is there any truth to the anonymous letter, received by La Presse, saying the New York office staff is in revolt against Fortier? What's going on? Why can't we be told?
Today we have, however, another question, one that goes beyond this case and encompasses all 25 of Quebec's offices overseas: What's the point? The time has come for the Quebec government to scale back this jet-set boondoggle, find ways to co-operate with the federal government in foreign relations, and abandon the popinjay pretence of being some kind of independent state-in-waiting.
The network of Quebec offices abroad has grown to imposing dimensions. As you work out your income-tax payments this spring, take what pleasure you can in the fact that you are supporting seven "délégations générales" in Brussels, London, Mexico City, Munich, New York, Paris and Tokyo. One step down the scale of significance are our four "délégations," in Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Boston. Then come our 10 "offices" in Barcelona, São Paulo, Beijing, Berlin, Damascus, Hong Kong, Rome, Shanghai, Vienna and Washington. Finally we have "trade branch" offices, staffed not by Quebecers but by local employees only, in Milan, Santiago, Seoul and Taipei.
A tour of the department's website (www.mri.gouv.qc.ca) reveals thumbnail photos of some impressive real estate. You are represented in Paris in a building just off the ritzy Avenue Foch. In London you have an office in Pall Mall. In New York your delegation general is housed in Rockefeller Centre, and the lucky delegate-general gets to use a penthouse apartment opposite the Museum of Modern Art. You get the idea.
It all adds up. The international relations department will spend $125 million in the fiscal year starting April 1, sofa-cushion change compared with some departments' spending but still a sum that could be more usefully deployed elsewhere. And the department's spending is to climb by a startling 12.9 per cent from this year. That's a faster rate of increase than any other department can boast, with the exception of something called the government services department.
Where does the money go? The biggest chunk of it - more than $44 million, plus perhaps more through other departments - is for all that representation abroad, and the network has been "redeployed" recently as part of Quebec's "international policy" set out in May 2006. This goes on for pages and pages about "strengthening the capacity for action and influence of the Quebec state," all the while carefully avoiding much mention of the federal government.
It is true that some matters in provincial or shared jurisdiction - culture, for example - do lead Quebec into international contacts. But for Quebec to maintain such a big and costly network outside the country shows little evidence of real commitment to genuine sharing of powers. Quebec governments demand without rest that Ottawa respect fields of provincial jurisdiction, but muscle into fields of federal jurisdiction without hesitation.
In a period when one economic think-tank after another has complained about barriers to trade within Canada, it's revealing to note that Quebec has only four offices across Canada - Ottawa, Toronto, Moncton, Vancouver - and spends only $16 million a year on the secretariat - not a department, just a secretariat - charged with handling relations with the rest of this country. Quebec has more offices in Asia than in other parts of Canada.
To be sure, some other provinces have offices abroad. But Ontario's 10 "international marketing centres" are located in Canadian embassies and consulates. Alberta has 10 foreign offices, all oriented almost exclusively toward trade. Only Quebec spends so vaingloriously around the world.
True, all these offices provide a lush life for old friends of the premier, ex-pols due for a favour, preferred civil servants and the like. But do they bring us good value for all that money?
Charest and his government should take the opportunity caused by a vacancy in New York to re-think this whole politique de grandeur.