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From the archives

The Melmac Years

My peculiar resin d’être

Maple Branches

Who talks of my nation?

Listening In

What recent populist victories tell us about Canada

Checking in on Quebec

Two leading analysts try to free the province from old ideas

George Anderson

Aux pays des merveilles: Essai sur les mythes politiques québécois

André Pratte

VLB éditeur

153 pages, softcover

Éloge de la richesse: Des idées pour donner au Québec les moyens de ses ambitions

Alain Dubuc

Voix parallèles

334 pages, softcover

In 1970, the French sociologist Michel Crozier wrote an academic treatise, La Societé Bloquée, about a France unable to change, even after the general strike and near collapse of order in May 1968. It became a best seller—and a third edition came out in 1999 arguing why France is still “bloquée.”

Last October, a manifesto deploring the “situation de blocage” in contemporary Quebec was issued by the awkwardly named group Pour un Québec Lucide, led by Lucien Bouchard and others. They argued that a “kind of global refusal to change is hurting Quebec because it risks turning into a republic of the status quo, a fossil of the 20th century.”

The manifesto led to a flood of comment and reaction. Pour un Québec Solidaire quickly issued its own counter-manifesto. And, for lighter reading, the blogosphere offers the delightful manifesto of Pour un Québec Morbide.

These clashing manifestos are interesting for their arguments, but also as a reflection of current debate in Quebec. Their emphasis is on wealth creation and distribution, on models of globalization and on the environment. Independence for Quebec is merely noted as something on which there is no consensus by the lucides and, in a passing reference, as an ultimate goal by the solidaires. Moreover, the historical concern about the place of francophones in Quebec appears nowhere—it is yesterday’s business.

The one journalist who signed the lucide manifesto is André Pratte, chief editorialist at La Presse. He and Alain Dubuc, the paper’s leading columnist, share the best media bully pulpit in Quebec. Despite their opportunities to influence public opinion, frustration has led each to lay out book-length arguments on Quebec’s myths, mood and model.

The books are complementary but very different. Paradoxically, it is Dubuc who has developed the lucide economic manifesto into a book. Pratte is more overtly political in attacking the myths of the large, nationalist consensus in the province.

While Quebec’s economy has significantly closed the gap with Ontario and has some real strengths, Dubuc shows, in Éloge de la richesse, that its wealth is near the bottom of jurisdictions in North America. He concludes that Quebec’s economy is not a catastrophe, but is “somewhere between mediocre and ordinary.”

The problem is less past performance than future prospects. Quebec “is heading straight toward decline, a drop in its relative standard of living, which could become clear within five or ten years.” The greatest risk is the demographic shock, which has specialists “demonstrably terrified.” (Economist Pierre Fortin, a lucide signatory, says Quebec’s working-age population will drop from 70 percent today to 40 percent in 2030, slowing growth and burdening the state.)

Furthermore, Quebec is poorer than other provinces, spends more and taxes more, and has an exceptionally high debt, which renders it vulnerable. Refreshingly, Dubuc does not think the federal government’s correcting the “fiscal imbalance” will do more than address a small part of the problem.

Dubuc argues that Quebec is in many ways paralyzed at a time when the status quo is not an option. This paralysis reflects Quebeckers’ ambivalence about wealth, their loser complex, powerful unions and politics aligned along the constitutional divide. He is especially scornful of how Bernard Landry made the Parti Québécois beholden to union interests in exchange for their support.

The Quebec model, “and the cult that inspires it,” is central. Hard to define and difficult to make the subject of calm, rational debate, Dubuc sees it as including a social doctrine, an economic strategy, a culture of governance and a quest for identity—and goes on to up-end received wisdom on each. In particular, he finds the vaunted social model to be a variation on the Canadian model (and often indebted to “Canadian initiatives”), and neither especially effective nor generous.

His proposals include urgently addressing the fiscal challenge, creating a more competitive tax regime (more tilted to consumption taxes and less to personal and corporate income taxes) and promoting the fundamental role of education and research (on both of which Quebec has some real strengths).

While sound, the more interesting parts of Dubuc’s argument address some of the sacred cows that are part of the blocage in Quebec. High on the list is electricity pricing, and he argues that Quebec should break with its long-time subsidized rates for such industries as aluminum and its exceptionally low rates for households (based on the historic cost of capital). Instead, Quebec should move to maximize its revenues by selling into the U.S. and Ontario markets at the highest price available and charging domestic consumers on the same basis. He sees Quebec’s policy as equivalent to Alberta’s selling its oil and gas to local consumers at below market rates. The stakes are huge: potentially $8 billion in additional revenue for the province. He also wants the province to move aggressively to exploit the remaining hydro potential in the north of the province. (Interestingly, in the federal-provincial debate on fiscal imbalance virtually no one outside Quebec has raised this sensitive issue.)

Dubuc also takes on Quebec’s obsession with job creation because increasingly the issue will be labour shortages and the quality of the labour force, not subsidizing jobs. An egregious example of the latter was the Gaspesia case, a hopeless paper mill into which Bernard Landry (a particular bête noire of Dubuc’s) sank hundreds of millions before Jean Charest pulled the plug. He deplores the underfinancing of Quebec’s universities, in part because of the untouchability of frozen tuition fees. And he sees the refusal to proceed with public-private financing of infrastructure as further evidence of Quebec’s outmoded consensus. He underlines that Quebec must dramatically improve its productivity to offset declining labour force growth. The problem is that Quebeckers wrongly see “greater productivity” as code for squeezing more out of workers through harder work or longer hours while, in fact, productivity rises by making workers more effective, through better education, skills and investment—not more effort.

Dubuc calls for a debate on the priorities and approach of the provincial government (État), which could lead to a second quiet revolution and a “mobilizing project” on wealth creation as a way to secure Quebec’s identity and values in the 21st century.

André Pratte voted yes in both referendums and placed himself for a long time in that large group of Quebeckers who are uneasy about the federation but lack a deep need to be citizens of an independent Quebec. His personal conversion came the night of the 1995 referendum, when he was revolted by Jacques Parizeau’s blaming the defeat on “money and the ethnic votes.” The next day he wrote thankfully of Quebeckers’ narrow escape from letting Parizeau and his clique construct a country “for ‘nous’ and not the others.” Even though Parizeau resigned and excuses were made, he and his thesis remain extraordinarily popular within the PQ.

In Aux pays des merveilles, Pratte starts with the tired, but fundamental, question: What does Quebec want? He fears that Quebeckers—federalists as well as sovereigntists—are so caught up in a martyr complex, while the rest of the country is so frustrated with past failures to accommodate Quebec, that we have a false and sterile debate. His answer is that “first and foremost, Quebeckers want to be recognized.”

While the great failure in this regard was the defeat of Meech Lake, Pratte attacks the martyr complex by finding that both sides carry responsibility for the string of failures. In particular, he points out that it was Quebec that rejected the Fulton-Favreau formula for constitutional amendment and the Victoria Charter, it was Quebec that badly misplayed its hand during the constitutional round of 1981 (giving birth to the myth of the “night of the long knives”) and it was Quebec that dismissed the Calgary declaration of 1997 when the other nine provinces recognized “the distinct character of Quebec’s society” and the Assemblée Nationale’s role in protecting and promoting it.

Despite the constitutional failures, Pratte sees that Quebec’s distinctiveness has been recognized implicitly in many ways and that specific demands for autonomy have usually resulted in agreements, including those on labour market training, immigration, the new national health council (in which Quebec cooperates from outside) and parental leave. He also recognizes that Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world (tipping his hat to Stéphane Dion’s arguments) and that the Quebec government has not been notably brilliant in executing some of its responsibilities.

“So why do Quebeckers always seek more power for their provincial government?” Pratte asks. “Because that is how they express their demand for recognition.” However, for him, full independence would make sense only as a means to an end—but it is not needed given that Quebec has been successfully transformed within the federation. He also argues that the current PQ leadership has effectively dropped “association,” thus breaking with the positions of Lévesque and Bouchard. He sees the supposed advantages of independence as unrealistic and risky—a “black hole.”

Pratte is impatient too with many federalists, especially those who vaunt a Canada of perfect harmony, tolerance, prosperity and liberty. He accepts that Canada is exceptionally prosperous and peaceful, but “for Quebeckers, even many federalists, it is also the country that has always refused to formally recognize their distinctiveness, and that has long shown mistrust toward them and resisted their slightest steps forward.” The Canada that many federalists describe is not recognizable inside Quebec and therefore has not seduced Quebeckers.

This brings Pratte back to the constitutional impasse. This matters because a country is more than prosperity and governmental programs: it must rest on a common vision. “A constitution’s function is to entrench this shared vision.” While attracted to British political theorist Michael Foley’s view that constitutions are made up not just of written principles and unwritten conventions but also of “constitutional abeyances”—unresolved issues that are too intractable or dangerous to bring to a written resolution—Pratte still concludes that Quebec will always be tempted by separation if it does not receive formal recognition of its distinctiveness.

Pratte is discouraged by the federalist defence of Canada. While he believes that the debate over the rules of secession that culminated in the Supreme Court decision and the Clarity Act was “not useless,” he concludes that this approach, the so-called Plan B, was essentially a failure and marginal. He deplores the silence of federalists on the ground in Quebec, while the sovereigntists are active, especially in cultivating the young at CEGEPs and universities. A new federalist culture is required that recognizes that sovereigntist ideology is deeply anchored in Quebec and that re-engages in true debate. The poor prospects for achieving Quebec’s constitutional recognition make it even more of an imperative to have a dialogue based on the “real” Canada. The new federalist strategy must be based on the premise that the unity of Canada can never be taken for granted.

Pratte’s “real” country is the opposite of the bleak sovereigntist vision of the French language in peril, a rigid federalism and a Quebec subject to the will of others. It is also one where federalism is a “good idea” for reconciling diverse groups, accommodating plural identities, enriching democratic life and providing better service to citizens. (A good idea in need of rescue: he points out that only 33 percent of Quebeckers call themselves federalist, while 75 percent say they are proud to be Canadian.) Canada’s federalism also includes a degree of asymmetry, which Pratte would like to see developed carefully.

Alain Dubuc and André Pratte wrote these two important books in frustration with the powerful consensus that stands in the way of the views they advocate, but also in frustration with those who should be stronger allies. The Charest government has not lived up to many of its promises to reinvent the Quebec model. And the federalist camp has been distinguished by scandal, silence and drift, with a lack of energy and leadership. Pratte’s book, in particular, is being hailed as marking the arrival of the most articulate defender of federalism in Quebec since Claude Ryan.

Both books wobble on their prescriptions, although Dubuc’s less, because he has well-argued views on many specific policies. His weakness is in the idea of wealth creation as the rallying cry for a second quiet revolution. He well recognizes that wealth cannot be an end in itself, but his scant formulation of a “mobilizing project” on wealth creation is more crass than his sophisticated argument merits, perhaps because going further in elaborating such a project would draw him into the swamp of federalism versus independence. He also neglects the growing disparities in wealth in most industrialized countries and has remarkably little to say (although mostly positive) about the role of federal policy in shaping Quebec’s economy.

Pratte has made a long voyage from his two yes votes to his definitive defence of federalism. His emphasis on the “real” country is welcome because any federalist strategy must count on the real nature of Canada being known. Unfortunately, he scarcely touches on the nature and drivers of Quebeckers’ self-identity patterns as “Canadian” or “Quebecker” in varying degrees. Identity is a key predictor of a voter’s position on the constitutional question and an understanding of the experiential and societal forces behind identity should shape the development of any strategy. Pratte rightly underlines the symbolic importance of the constitution, but is he right to put so much emphasis on constitutional “recognition” as such? Surely the central issue is that the Quebec government, Assemblée Nationale or population has never endorsed a package of constitutional amendments agreed on with the rest of the country, which symbolically for many puts Quebec “outside” the constitution. Pratte seems to suggest that just getting the right words of recognition into the constitution would do the trick. In practice, Quebec’s political class is likely to want much more than words of recognition. A constitutional settlement may reduce the country’s vulnerability to a wave of separatist sentiment, but no one can see how to get there.

Pratte acknowledges this, so he wants a dialogue on the “real” country in the meantime. It would be welcome to see the facts and arguments he has put forward find their proper place in Quebec’s dialogue, but the organized federalist political forces are sadly weakened for now.

Even if Canada avoids another constitutional crisis, Quebec’s quandary is important for the whole country. The province could become a drag on Canada’s performance and require further transfers because of the imbalance between its working and non-working populations. Of course, some other provinces, especially in the Atlantic region, face similar challenges.

This goes to the lucide phenomenon. Polls suggest Lucien Bouchard is still by far Quebec’s most popular politician. He and other credible voices—including Pratte and Dubuc—are working to move the provincial debate away from the stale constitutional impasse to more material challenges. The lucide group has made addressing these issues central and has deliberately separated them from the question of independence. The surprising success of the federal Tories in becoming a real option in Quebec has also shifted the ground and put the sovereigntists on the defensive. Finally, Quebec’s left has split off and formed its own political party, Québec Solidaire, which will sap support from the PQ.

In other words, Quebec is showing some interesting fluidity for a société bloquée. It will need it.

George Anderson served as deputy minister for intergovernmental affairs, as well as for natural resources.