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Daniel D. Veniez Headshot

Could Quebec Go the Way of Greece?

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The campaign to elect a new government in Quebec has begun. Jean Charest's Liberals are clearly and understandably tired, though they remain an infinitely better alternative than the old, tired, irrelevant, and intellectually bankrupt Parti Quebecois of Pauline Marois.A new party led by aformer PQ cabinet minister, Francois Legault, the Coalition Avenir Quebec, is waging an insurgent campaign that may surprise everybody. Legault, a sovereignist, this week said that if a referendum were held today, he's vote "no."

Regardless of the outcome on September 4, Quebec will continue to muddle along as it has for decades now, not coming close to fulfilling its true economic and social potential. Getting out of this quicksand will require strong and courageous leadership, which is something that Quebecers have not seen from their provincial government for a very long time. Honest political leadership is the necessary precursor to an informed and honest conversation Quebec must have about its future.

For decades, the province has been sleepwalking in the illusion of its success as a social democracy. Tragically, that dangerous mindset has become entrenched in the minds of a new generation that has known nothing else. The latest manifestations of this are the student protests over tuition fees which are the lowest in Canada by far.

As is always the case in Quebec elections for the last 40 years, separation from Canada is again a topic of conversation. As sure as night follows day, or as sure as the Leafs miss another playoff birth, Toronto-based pundits are once again predicting the end of Canada should the Parti Quebecois win and there is no other francophone federalist voice that can make the case for Canada. That's not only wrong, but it is also beside the point. Quebecers don't want or need a cavalry of "federalists" to interfere with this election. They need Ottawa to pay attention between elections.

But for the sake of this speculative argument, let us assume that the PQ emerges victorious in the upcoming election and forms a government. Given the current polling trends, that is a distinct possibility. Let us also assume that they would immediately proceed to organize a referendum campaign. Let's stretch this even further and speculate that a new Parti Quebecois government has won an overwhelming mandate, based on a very clear and unambiguous question, to negotiate the separation of Canada. Then what?

Today, Quebec is a fiscal basket case with a debt of $252 billion, representing 55.3 per cent of its GDP. Should Quebec choose to separate from Canada, it would have to absorb its fair share of federal debt, which at 25 per cent of $588 billion, would be another $147 billion. It would be forced to relinquish approximately another $9 billion in equalization payments.

Overnight, Quebec would have $408 billion in debt. And that's just for starters. There are billions more in transfer payments, federal programs, and other contributions, not to mention the billions in federal property and other assets that will have to be valued. The ratings for Quebec's debt by Moody's, Standard and Poor's, and Fitch would come immediately under review. And with a doubling of the provincial debt load to over 100% of GDP, you can be sure that ratings for Quebec bonds, currently stable AA, would drop like a stone, probably to junk status. That would drive up Quebec's cost of borrowing to prohibitive rates, which would add an even heavier burden on Quebec's debt load.

Within a very short period, Quebec becomes far worse than Greece, without a European Community equivalent eager to bail it out. One can also bank on a creeping capital flight, much like the one that began in the early 1970s, and what little investment is attracted to Quebec today would collapse under the heavy weight of political and economic uncertainty.

Already the highest tax rate and highest taxed province in Canada, tax revenues would decline, and Quebec would have no choice but to raise taxes further, or embark upon a severe austerity program that the Parti Quebecois has vowed to oppose. Either way, the Parti Quebecois would be sunk as a legitimate government and the people of Quebec would be facing a severe financial and political crisis. A new Republic of Quebec will become a case for the emergency surgeons at the International Monetary Fund. That is the only realistic outcome of the Parti Quebecois fantasy promise land.

This is no "doomsday" scenario. It is simple arithmetic. So, the practical economic and political reality of Quebec's very weak economic condition makes the prospect if imminent separation highly unlikely. So the Toronto salons can relax, at least for now.

The larger question surrounds building a better Canada. Quebec's weakness is Canada's weakness. But that is no reason to ignore Quebec; it is the reason to actively engage.

It is why Pierre Trudeau fought so hard to inculcate the French fact in Ottawa, and it is why he fought so tirelessly against the self-doubting and hidebound nationalism of Quebec separatists. He wanted his compatriots to be confident, outward looking, and secure in the knowledge that they are every bit as good as anyone in the world. The challenge our political leaders must confront today is what do we need to do to create a Canada that is financially stable, where we make the very most of the best we have to contribute to each other as Canadians, and contribute to the world.

In theory, the beauty of our federation is in its flexibility. It has not always worked out that way in practice. All provinces jealously guard their jurisdictional autonomy, not just Quebec. That has entrenched and institutionalized barriers to productivity. And that has come at the expense of our standard of living.

In many ways, Pierre Trudeau was way ahead of his time. Being nimble and leveraging our abundant attributes as a country to compete and prosper in the global economy. The Internet and other technologies have made the world a much smaller place in the 21st century. Forty years earlier, Trudeau understood that we can be stronger and better as a country if we tear silos down that divide us and strengthen the spinal chord that unites us. However, we have barely made a dent in this imperative while the world around us have aggressively accelerated their policies to integrate and coordinate to maximize their effectiveness,power, environmental stewardship, and competitiveness. Patriation of our own constitution and a enshrining a Charter of Rights was one building block. Trudeau and his successors - with the notable exception of Stephen Harper - all worked to fortify the social and economic union as another.

To continue along this path, more underbrush must be cleared. For many people, the notion that Quebec is a distinct society is on its face contrary to the Canadian ideal and the one espoused by Trudeau. That ideal says that we are all citizens with equal rights and responsibilities under the law, and that none of us are more "distinct" as individuals than any others. The Charter brought that idea to life and is now an entrenched part of our nationhood.

But Quebec's distinctiveness is an historical fact, and it is a fact that my own family - from L'Assomption, Repentigny, Saint-Lin, and Pointe-Aux-Trembles - has always cherished. One of the most important documents in our history is the Quebec Act of 1774, which gave the French full rights to their faith -- the Catholic Church -- language, culture, and legal system.

The genesis of Quebec as a "distinct society" emanates there. Contrary to the popular myth that this is a creation of modern day "separatists," it was part of our very beginnings, securely established in law and practice, and was a basis for the formation of LowerCanada and Upper Canada as independent entities.

It was later that they decided to unite so they could be stronger and so the work of stitching together a larger country could begin. French Canadians were ardent co-conspirators in the founding and subsequent cultivation of the larger Canadian project. These origins were the result of compromise and accommodation almost a century and a half ago.

In more recent times, debate on the issue has degenerated into a sharp divisiveness along language lines, regional lines, and even party lines. Since the 1995 referendum, tempers have cooled and discussion on whether Quebec is "distinct" or not has largely passed. But it is never far from the surface. Jack Layton used it to good effect in his winning campaign in Quebec last year.

In a series of events that caught most observers by surprise, the House of Commons adopted a motion that recognized Quebec as a "nation" within Canada. That was a jolting development for some. In a series of Massey Lectures published as a book titled The Rights Revolution many years before he contemplated active politics, Michael Ignatieff wrote:

Quebec is a civic nation, not an ethnic nation. It is composed of all the peoples from many lands who have come to Quebec and associate themselves with the values and traditions of Quebec and Canada. Quebec's Charter of Rights-and its language laws-balance the rights of the majority, with equal rights for linguistic and other minorities. To recognize Quebec-and Aboriginal peoples-as nations within the fabric of Canada is not to make some new concession. It is simply to acknowledge a fact. This achieved balance-between provincial autonomy and national citizenship-already allows a clear majority of Quebecers to say, with pride, "Le Quebec est ma nation, le Canada est mon pays.


Ignatieff's perspective and insight are profound. It resonated with me as a native Quebecois, and as a proud Canadian. It also happens to be rooted in historical fact and current reality.

As Quebecers prepare to go to the polls to elect their new provincial government, the rest of Canada should not worry about whether this spells yet another episode of division and uncertainty. A majority of Quebecers want to say yes to Canada, and have many times. Yet, we should reflect upon what we need to do as a country to get our collective act together to focus on creating a country where its component parts feel comfortable in their place within the larger Canadian community.

The national leaders and provincial premiers that hammered out the Canada Act of 1982 left us with an enduring legacy. One of them is an amending formula that allows us modernize our constitution. And modernize it we must, not only for Quebec, for all of us.

There is much work left to do to build a more cohesive, productive, and united country. Despite the valiant, but failed, attempts to do so in the 1980's, we cannot forever ignore the need to modernize our constitution. Nor can we live in perpetualfear of trying.