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Think Quebec's Going to Separate? Take a Valium!

03/07/2014 12:00 EST | Updated 05/07/2014 05:59 EDT

As expected, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has called an election this week. Recently published surveys appear to suggest that her Parti Quebecois government is tracking toward a majority government. Predictably, the political and pundit class in English Canada are hyperventilating at the prospect of a referendum on Quebec sovereignty should the PQ win a majority.

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.

But for the sake of this speculative argument, let us assume that the PQ emerges victorious in the upcoming election and forms a majority government. Let us also assume that they would immediately proceed to organize a referendum campaign. Let's stretch this even further and speculate that a majority 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 also 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 hundreds of 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 tojunk 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.

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. But since when did facts ever get in the way of informed political discussion on the very future of the country?

It's why the Parti Quebecois has shamelessly used the niqab to inject create wedges and fear and fuel intolerance. The ugly underbelly of the cultural insecurity of some Quebecois has been ruthlessly deployed to the PQ's political advantage.

The rest of Canada should understand that Quebec's weakness is Canada's weakness. That is no reason to ignore Quebec; it is the reason to actively engage with it.

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. 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 has 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.

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 1980s, we cannot forever ignore the need to modernize our constitution. Nor can we live in perpetual fear of trying.

I was born and raised in Montreal to a Quebecoise and English-speaking father. The workingclass neighbourhoods I grew up in the city's East End were -- and still are -- staunch supporters of the Parti Quebecois. Political and cultural sovereignty touches a very real chord in the consciousness of many people. But that shouldn't be confused with a desire to separate from Canada should that clear choice -- and its full ramifications -- be presented to Quebecers.

From my perch as a British Columbian for the past 12 years, I can understand why English Canada's eyes are rolling at the prospect of yet another manufactured "national unity crisis." I'm pretty tired of it, too. A few days after the call of an election that is far from decided, we're already hearing commenters say "Let Quebec go." We've been hearing that since 1968. That talk is reckless. Anyone who professes to love Canada wouldn't make such statements. Quebec is an integral part of the very soul of Canada. Without her, we cease to be.

The citizens of Quebec will vote for a new government in their next election. They aren't going to the polls to vote to form a new country. That may come later. But I doubt it. Like the rest of us, Quebecers are far too preoccupied with questions much more fundamental to them like having meaningful work, paying the bills, building their families, and their health and happiness.

So, let's all of us take a Valium. Please.

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