We owe Quebecers a better deal in Canada

Par Rudyard Griffiths

Élections 2006


Granting new powers to province not threat to national unity, says Rudyard Griffiths
While predicting a Liberal or Conservative minority government at this stage of the election is a mutt's game, of this we can be certain: the Bloc will win a landside victory in Quebec on Jan. 23.
Having maintained for the last three weeks the popular support of 50 per cent or more of Quebec voters, it is hard to see how the Bloc can't but paint most of la belle province blue. The goal for embattled Liberals is simply to hold onto a handful of seats in and around the island of Montreal.
Much has been made in the campaign about a Bloc landside creating the winning conditions for a referendum on separation. I would argue the more profound question is the impact of a sweeping Bloc victory on the rest of Canada.
Whether the last Parliament, or the minority governments of Trudeau, Pearson, or Diefenbaker, the emergence of a strong sectional party from Quebec creates an irresistible impetus for decentralization. Our next prime minister, Liberal or Conservative, will chase the dream of forming a majority government by devolving more federal powers to Quebec.
The granting of new powers to Quebec is neither bad politics, nor a threat to national unity. Let's not forget that after the botched patriation of the Constitution, English Canada torpedoed the Meech Lake accord and with it the notion of recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society." After the close 1995 referendum, we lifted nary a finger to resolve our unity crisis. Our only foray into nation-building was to try to buy Quebecers' loyalty with cash, pointless ads and trinkets embossed with the flag - small-town cheap, indeed.
We owe Quebec, and the majority of Quebecers who want to stay in Canada, a better deal and more powers within the existing terms of our federation.
The problem with devolving areas of federal jurisdiction to Quebec city is the nine other provinces - all of English-speaking Canada - which are all hell-bent on using any concession to Quebec and the principle of the equality of the provinces as levers to wrestle money and power from Ottawa.
We witnessed "zero-sum" federalism emerge with a vengeance during the previous Parliament. The inking of a single deal between Ottawa and one province spawned multiple agreements giving the other provinces more powers over energy revenues, health care and immigration.
But just what is at issue here? After all, Ottawa keeps racking up record surpluses while the provinces load on more debt. Also, aren't the provinces simply reassuming powers eroded by the decades-long "intrusion" of Ottawa into areas of provincial jurisdiction?
All true, but we are living through a period of unprecedented global change where the ability to coordinate nationwide programs and policies is a key strategic asset.
To fracture English Canada, through a fire sale of federal powers, into nine semi-autonomous units would be an unmitigated disaster.
As a country of only 30 million or so people, sustaining our quality of life depends on competing successfully in a vastly more cutthroat global economy.
Using modern technology and instantaneous global communication, emerging superpowers such as India and China are unleashing the productive capacity of vast reserves of human capital - literally tens of millions of people - to create products and services better and cheaper than Canada.
This we know: Handing over to all 10 provinces responsibility for job training, education and immigration policy - shrinking the federal government and its ability to coordinate policies and programs across regions - will irreparably damage our global competitiveness and prosperity.
We also need a federal government that uses its powers and purse to advance a focused national agenda, as opposed to chasing after 1,001 different priorities, to invest in Canada's human capital.
The inevitable landside Bloc win presents a formidable challenge for the rest of Canada.
Will our federal leaders have the intestinal fortitude to address Quebecers' justifiable frustration with status quo federalism while resisting the clarion calls of nine other premiers?
More important, can they re-legitimize a robust role for Ottawa in an era of rapid global change?
To fail in the first task is to risk our national unity. To fail in the second is to squander not only English Canada's patrimony, but its once bright future.


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