Work vs. Joie de Vivre, the Painful truth in Quebec

« Notre avenir, un dialogue public »

par Mark Anderson

So Lucien Bouchard doesn't think Quebecers work as hard as Ontarians or Americans. Sacre bleu. Encore l'humiliation.

And yet the stats are in, and they don't lie. Research by Université du Québec à Montréal economics professor Pierre Fortin pegs the Quebec work week at 32 hours, versus 34 for Ontarians and 37 for Americans. Quebecers also retire younger, carry more personal debt and suffer lower productivity than residents of other provinces.

Bouchard, in pointing these things out last week, was simply stating the obvious. “You can't escape the truth, and I like Quebecers too much to not tell them the truth”.

Ah, but truth, in Quebec, is seldom an airtight defence, especially where perceived slights to the “national” character are concerned.

“There are plenty of (Quebec) workers who have two jobs, “snapped labour leader Louis Roy, upon learning of Bouchard's remarks.

“We work pretty hard in Quebec” huffed Health Minister Philippe Couillard.

Bouchard has once again disappointed Quebecers with his comments, chimed in former premier Jacques Parizeau.

Hey, Quebec: Why the hating? If you don't want to be accused of working less hard than your neighbours, work harder. And while you're at it, stop treating the public highways like on-ramps to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, switch from Pepsi to Coke, and eat hyour fries like everyone else, sans gravy and curds.

But then, you're not like everyone else, are you? And isn't that the point - a distinct society with distinct tastes, values and ideas about what makes life worth living? Henri Massé, president of one of Quebec's largest labour organizations, suggested as much when he argued that short work weeks are a reflection not of laziness - a word Bouchard never used or implied - but of a healthier, more balanced lifestyle. He also noted, with approval, that Quebecers enjoy longer vacations and parental leave than other Canadians.

He's not alone in his assessment. “I think that (Quebec) people make the choice to spend more time with their family,” said the fellow labour heavyweight Daniel B. Lafrenière, vice-president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions.

Just so, a matter of values.

Why burn the candle at both ends, when a candle-lit dinner is so much more civilized?

Moreover, it's not like Quebecers don't come by their love of leisure honestly, or at least culturally: France currently holds the distinction of working fewer hours per year than any nation on earth.

The problem, of course, is that not even the French feel they can afford any longer to treat issues of declining productivity with the customary Gallic shrug.

A recent poll found that a majority of French workers would like to do away with the European Union's Working Time Directive, which sets a maximum 48-hour week and minimum four-week vacation period for the EU's 25 member states.

In other words, they want the right to work harder than currently allowed under EU law.

The question is whether Quebecers want to work harder, or express outrage over suggestions they could and should. Certainly, the widening productivity gap between Quebec and other North American jurisdictions is a serious and growing concern. (The disparity has been increasing every year since 1984, says the head of the manufacturers and exporters association of Quebec, with the result that Quebec-based small and medium-sized firms are currently 23 per cent less productive than those based in Ontario, 35 per cent less productive than comparable American firms.)

As the one-time champion of Quebec sovereignty and independence, Lucien Bouchard is in a better position than most to realize the consequences of a failure to address the issue : If Quebec can't stand on its feet economically, it can't do so politically. In other words - grandiose, castle-on-the-hill visions of BQ leader Gilles Duceppe nonwithstanding - each year of slipping GDP pushes the dream of an independent Quebec a little further into the background, for the simple reason that Canada's other nine provinces (OK, Ontario and Alberta) become increasingly important bulwarks against a wholesale economic meltdown.

Indeed, it's no coincidence that rumblings of separatism and provincial empowerment have shifted of late from Quebec to the booming West. You can't flex muscles you don't have, and Quebec's gradually becoming the equivalent of an economic 98-pound weakling.

Bouchard's right when he says Quebecers have to do better, that job 1 for the foreseeable future must be the creation of wealth. It'd be said if that meant an end to leisurely lunches and early retirement, if Quebecers were forced to become more like us, the overworked, humourless tête carrée.

Still, what are you going to do? C'est la vie - for all of us.

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