October 24, 2005

U-Turn Proposed for Quebec?

In the last 40 years, the province of Quebec in Canada has made substantial strides in standard of living, education levels, and sustaining a Francophone culture. It's done so with an approach that could readily be described as European ... a role for the State (province) that goes well beyond that seen in other Canadian provinces. Quebec now has general parity with neighbour Ontario on many indices of economic and social wellbeing, despite greater problems with unemployment and its economy.

It was therefore with some shock that English Canadians opened their newspapers last week to discover that a dozen or so leading personalities in Quebec had released a revolutionary white paper in both French and English entitled "A Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec." Most prominent among the authors was former Premier Lucien Bouchard, a member of the separatist Parti Quebecois.


The white paper outlines two challenges for Quebec in coming decades ... a demographic collapse exceeded in scale in the industrial world only by Japan (Quebec is predicted to only have 300,000 more people in 2050!) ... and the challenge of the globalized industry (especially China, India and the little "tigers") which has closed 40% of the Quebec textile industry in the last two years alone. By midcentury, Quebec will be an island of 7.8 million Francophones in a continent of 1.2 billion English and Spanish speakers. The status quo cannot be maintained.

The paper urges Quebecois to wake up to the profound challenges facing the province (despite its success in the last few decades). Solutions offered include a major initiative to reduce the provincial debt (which stands far higher per capita than other jurisdictions in North America) and a significantly greater reinvestment in the educational system (currently starved under tuition freezes). Quebec must boost its productivity and engagement with the world around it, or face a vicious cycle of increased debt, increased debt service costs, and a slowing or shrinking economic base (with or without the equalization payments it receives from Alberta & Ontario, or the income from its provincially-owned hydroelectric power generation).

The authors point out that Quebecois work less, retire earlier, and benefit more from social programs than other North Americans. But this prosperity and leisure cannot be sustained with a shrinking/ageing population, growing debt, and the inflexible allocation of resources locked in place by special interest groups. Warning of a return to the "closed society and excessive attachment to tradition" of Quebec society of the past, the white paper outlines the need for a change in attitude in the province ... toward business values, toward the urgency of provincial economic growth, toward reducing the subsidized electricity rates of Hydro-Quebec within the province, toward learning English and a third language (as the basis for educational and business opportunities). It calls for major tax reform that would encourage work and capital formation without dismantling the social programs that provide a sense of Quebec community.

More than an effective set of priorities, however, "A Clear-Eyed Vision" is about starting a discussion about the non-negotiable realities facing Quebec and its culture. Both demographic collapse and globalization will affect Quebec -- whether independence is gained or participation in Canada continues. The Anglosphere won't have anything directly to do with it. English Canada will play little part in how readily Quebec responds to its two existential challenges. This will be debate for and among Quebecois. And it will be very interesting to see how this very North American part of the Francophonie responds.

Posted by jmccormick at October 24, 2005 05:42 PM

As an English Canadian, my opinion vis-a-vis Quebec has changed 180 degrees since the 1995 Referendum. In 1995 I believed passionately in national, coast-to-coast solidarity. But this gradually turned to indifference as I realized the cultural solitudes would never be reconciled; that I would never readily identify myself with them; that indeed it would be better if they left so that my own values would be represented in federal politics.

Because of Quebec, modern Canada has never had a Reagan, a Thatcher or a Menzies. And now we don't have a Bush, a Blair or a Howard. I have come to realize that we are paying too high a price to keep them part of the family. I have much more in common with my American, British and Australian cousins than I do with them.

Posted by: Michael J. Smith at October 24, 2005 10:11 PM

Good luck to them. They'll need it.

Posted by: Lexington Green at October 25, 2005 08:45 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?