Where would Canada be without Quebec?

La belle province has paid its way both culturally and politically

L'idée fédérale

Brian Lee Crowley's op-ed in the Sept. 26 Globe and Mail is adapted from his new book, Fearful Symmetry, which is already recognized as an important contribution to the likely evolution of both Canadian federalism and social policy. With admittedly some degree of misrepresentation, there is a “demography-as-destiny” dimension that drives the analysis of these two key areas. (The third major focus of Fearful Symmetry is the importance of family values, a topic that will be joined later.)
The basic argument on the federalism front is that the population growth of the provinces west of Quebec (especially Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia) will sideline Quebec's erstwhile power in the federation and, therefore, diminish its ability to “win” benefits for its citizens.
On the social-policy front, the transformation of the boomers into golden agers will create a dramatic labour shortage with the potential to fundamentally transform Canada socially. I agree with Mr. Crowley that, whereas one of the rationales for the current structure of unemployment insurance/employment insurance was to mop up the excess labour supply arising from the boomers, EI is now likely to evolve in the direction of ensuring that short-term labour-force attachment will no longer generate long-term benefits and, more generally, that the thrust of key aspects of social policy will be directed toward increasing labour-force participation.
I also agree with Mr. Crowley that some of the policies “won” by Quebec (regional preferences under EI and the exclusion of hydro rents from equalization) may have served to create a false sense of prosperity and to tilt its policies in ways that have run counter to its longer-term economic interests.
However, Mr. Crowley's conclusion in the op-ed that Ottawa and Quebec transformed the province “into a society that cannot pay its own way or reproduce itself, that is highly dependent on transfers from the rest of the country, and that is losing its political influence,” distorts the reality.
To see this, it is instructive to approach this claim from the opposite vantage point, namely, what did Quebec “win” for Canada. First, Quebec gave Canada legal, linguistic and institutional pluralism, among the many beneficiaries of which are the country's first nations. Second, because Quebec as a founding nation was also a “have not” province, this led to a larger role for interpersonal and interregional transfers (including equalization, which is absent in the United States). Third, and related, Quebec has assumed Saskatchewan's earlier role as an innovator in social policy (daycare, parental leave, pharmacare for example). Fourth, Quebec was, and still is, a leader in terms of decentralizing the federation, much appreciated now by the fossil-energy provinces. Fifth, with Quebec in the fold, the political tensions in Canada revolved around federal-provincial and territorial axes, and not non-territorial ones (e.g., not Charter interests versus vested interests). Sixth, multiculturalism would be less strong were it not for official bilingualism and biculturalism. Lastly, but hardly exhaustively, Quebec has been the bastion of collective rights, which again distinguishes Canada from the United States.
Arguably, it is the embracing of these features that helped Canada to achieve the best of both worlds, as it were: an Anglo-American economic model and a Continental European social model. In this sense, we are all Quebeckers now!
In contrast, if one were to link Mr. Crowley's view of a diminished role for Quebec and his call for a retrenching of the social envelope with his strong commitment to the importance of family values, then this could be interpreted as a call for moving Canada in the direction of the rugged individualism that characterizes the U.S. model.
But is he correct that Quebec's role in Canada will diminish over time? At the level of House of Commons seats, this is obvious. Not so for the Senate, however. Moreover, if things begin to go awry with Canadian policy from Quebec's vantage point, my view is that the Bloc Québécois will disappear and Quebeckers will resume their traditional role of ensuring that they are substantially represented in the governing party.
On the economic/international fronts, it is far from clear that Quebec's role will diminish. It is, and will continue to be, the most ardent supporter of policies to counter climate change, in part because it has already met its Kyoto targets (thanks to Hydro-Québec) and in part because its earlier emissions reductions will allow it to reap huge rewards from issuing tradable credits in any cap-and-trade system. On a related note, the U.S. Northeast would be a willing buyer of Quebec's hydro-electricity and even more so under a Canada-U.S. cap-and-trade system.
On the economic front, Quebec has come through the collapse much better than has Ontario, albeit from a lower base. Beyond this, the U.S. market is potentially much larger now with the collapse of outsourcing/offshoring, and Quebec is well located to take advantage of the soon-to-be-larger markets in the U.S. Northeast.
Plus ça change ...
Thomas J. Courchene is a professor of economics at Queen's University and senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Public Policy.


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Thomas J. Courchene is a professor of economics at Queen's University and senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

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