OTTAWA - Quebec has defined itself as a grievance society, right down to its official motto, Je me souviens -- most often taken to mean "I remember what the English did to the French."
This has given Quebec premiers of all stripes moral purchase when dealing with self-flagellating federal governments. Benoit Pelletier, the Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, was only the latest in a long line of provincial extortionists seeking to wring yet more concessions from Ottawa this week when he said that Jean Charest's Liberal government wants to see Quebec's distinctiveness recognized in the Constitution in a charter of open federalism. "We will be very insistent," he said.
But at what point should Quebecers resolve that ancient enmities have been redressed and it's time to look closer to home for what ails their province? How about in the wake of a new report from the C.D. Howe Institute, which suggests that French Canadians are thriving economically, compared with the 1970s when incomes were lower than those of other ethnic groups?
The study by Francois Vaillancourt, Dominique Lemay and Luc Vaillancourt, entitled [Laggards No More->8071], says that the socio-economic status of francophones in Quebec has increased steadily since 1960, whether the measure is labour income, returns on language skills or ownership of the Quebec economy (up to 67% now from 47% in the 1960s).
Incomes of bilingual francophones now surpass all others, whether among men or women. In 1970, bilingual francophones barely earned the same as anglophones who didn't speak a word of French -- today the francophones are almost $5,000 ahead.
Although unilingual francophones still tend to trail other income groups, the authors note that in the years since the introduction of free trade in 1989, there has been a strengthening of the status of French in Quebec, "even as the unilingual English-U.S. market has become more important for Quebec firms."
"The relative status of francophones within Quebec itself is under no immediate threat," concluded the authors.
A month living with a French family in the nationalist heartland of the Saguenay offered first-hand testimony of this growing confidence that Quebec's culture and future are best protected within Canada.
Yet Mr. Pelletier's statement this week ignores the gains that have been made and, in pressing for new constitutional negotiations, opens a new and dangerous front in the hostilities between Quebec and Ottawa.
As was perhaps inevitable in the aftermath of Mr. Charest's wafer-thin victory this spring, the provincial government is now wrapping itself in the fleurde-lis, in an attempt to steal thunder from the Parti Quebecois under new leader Pauline Marois and Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec.
Mr. Pelletier said his government will press Ottawa to be specific on what its recognition of the Quebecois as a "nation" really means. In addition, he wants to set limits on federal spending powers that will "protect" the province.
The circling of wagons to guard against the ominipresent external threat is the time-honoured tactic of Quebec governments in trouble. Mr. Pelletier's comments echo those made in the Quebec election by Mr. Dumont, who campaigned for a constitutional amendment to curb Ottawa's spending powers. He has long been sympathetic to the Allaire Report, produced by former Quebec Liberal dissident and first ADQ leader Jean Allaire, which suggested that Ottawa be left with sole jurisdiction of just five areas: defence, tariffs, currency, the national debt and equalization. All others, including foreign policy, were to be shared with the provinces.
Now it looks like Mr. Charest's Liberals are also bent on taking the "autonomist" line pioneered by the ADQ, a move that would leave the federal government as little more than a husk. This would force the ADQ to support Mr. Charest or look hypocritical. Ms Marois can be expected to fall into line behind the other two leaders, confident that nothing good for the federation can emerge.
All of this makes Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's pronouncement that federal-provincial bickering was "fini" after his budget look as wildly optimistic as a personals ad looking for a double-jointed supermodel who owns her own brewery.
The Conservatives handed the Charest government "nation" status and $700-million in additional equalization payments, only to see the money used to fund tax cuts instead of services.
When Mr. Charest comes calling again, Prime Minister Stephen Harper could be forgiven if he asks the Quebec Premier to choose between yet more demands and his professed support for federalism. Patience in donor provinces is running thin and Mr. Harper might wish to point to the new evidence that francophone Quebeckers have never had it so good before wading into the quagmire of yet more constitutional talks.
Time for Quebec to put aside gripes
The circling of wagons to guard against the ominipresent external threat is the time-honoured tactic of Quebec governments in trouble.