Québec is shrinking

Demographics are playing against Québec. Birth rates and net immigration aren't high enough for the province to keep its relative weight in the Canadian bosom.

As if it weren't enough, the province's contribution to the government's mix has been depleting since the Conservatives' arrival at the helm in 2006. At first, Stephen Harper courted Québec, hoping the province would give him the edge he needed to achieve majority. But unfortunately, settlement of the fiscal imbalance, recognition of the Québécois nation and UNESCO representation haven't touched voters as expected and didn't translate into enough votes for a majority Conservative government in the 2008 election. Many irritated Conservatives see the Québécois as ungrateful.

In recent months, Stephen Harper has been pushing another alternative to boost his representation in the House of Commons, an alternative that thrives on the higher growth rate of western Canadian cities. A first attempt last year, at riding redistribution, died amid howls of complaint from Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty; his province received far fewer new seats under the proposed bill than its fast-growing population warranted. But the fruit is now ripe for many and a recent proposition may well suit Ontario's concerns and leave Québec with the highest population per electoral district, a proposition that would leave each Québec voter with the weakest say at the House of Commons.

Canadians seem to agree with Stephen Harper's plans. A recent EKOS survey done for the CBC has the Conservatives at 39.7 per cent and the Liberals at 25.7 per cent. A Strategic Counsel/Globe and Mail/CTV poll released earlier this week had similar results. Ontarians are now turning their back to the Liberals, even in Toronto, and Québec may very well pay the price. A Conservative majority government with minimal Québec representation is kind of like a blank check; it doesn't call for a disproportionate number of Québécois ministers to go forward.

Such a scenario might very well be the beginning of a vicious circle. Who would want to play the part of the token Franco in a government who doesn't need Québec? A federal government with low Québécois representation would become even less appealing for politicians of the province and would drift away from the rich heritage the province has contributed to the country. Through time, Québec has often been instrumental in governmental decision making for prioritizing political, social and economical issues such as free trade, not following the USA in Iraq and gay marriage.

For many Conservatives, and even many Canadians, Québec remains the unbearable spoiled child of the Canadian federation. What a treat it would be not to have to cater to it! As much as a fantasy this may be for some, many sovereigntists are rubbing their hands at the thought. They believe that a Harper majority will serve their cause better than 20 years of patient education to the Québécois.

Inspired by a column by Vincent Marissal, "Le Québec ratatiné?" [Google translation] published in La Presse, October 9th, 2009.


CK said...

I live in Montreal myself & I've been wondering if Steve & his Harpercons get a majority, would this bring back the question of Quebec separation back to the table? Would we have yet another referendum. If yes, I would speculate that this time the 'yes' side would win given Quebecer's distaste for Steve's majority; everybody knows if we let Steve loose with a majority, his wet dream of an American Republican style (a la Ronald Reagan; George W. Bush/Cheney) would be realized.

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether Conservatives see Quebecers as ungrateful so much as unreceptive. There's that old English proverb about not throwing good money after bad, which may be guiding their thoughts vis a vis Quebec at the moment.

The new seats in Ontario are largely going to go to suburban areas, which are places where Conservatives generally do well. There may be some inroad into Toronto, but it's still unlikely that they'll really crack that nugget. Maybe just a few seats, to show they have representation from Canada's largest city, and to achieve even that would be quite the coup!

Even if Québec's population is in decline, the Constitution does not allow for seats to be removed to reflect population. Québec is still the second largest provincial population in this country, still the province with the second largest number of parliamentary seats, and that makes it attractive to any federal party. That's not going to change any time soon. Consider also that even in places like Alberta, political classes accept the importance of the French language and there are many possible replacements for Stephen Harper from English circles of the Conservative party who are fluently bilingual, which suggests again that there are inroads possible for creating pan-Canadian coalitions and understanding from the English side. This is really truer now than it has been historically, particularly for the Conservative party, which must augur well, not worse, for national unity.

A lot of this really depends on Quebecers. English Canada isn't going anywhere. Are Quebecers going to send federalist MPs to Ottawa? Are they interested in joining a national coalition? Stephen Harper's experience seems to suggest English-Canadians are waiting for you, and are even willing to spend political capital in unpopular ways to meet you in the middle. Is Québec on board or not? That's the real question.

The idea that Conservatives will scare Quebecers out of the union is specious. If anything, their years in power have been tempering to their ideology, and they have taken many stands in power that would have been unthinkable for them as the Opposition. That's entirely normal, because in a country like Canada, in order to maintain a large enough coalition to rule, you must appeal to those outside of your ideological circle. And the allure of power has a way of dampening people's adherence to their principles. Stephen Harper has actively pulled his party from the hard right more to the the right of centre, slowly but surely. It's very clear that the raving anti-abortionists and Christian fundamentalists are not in power, nor does Stephen Harper really have to do very much to maintain their support. Who else can they really vote for anyway? Alberta is hardly about to go Liberal! This actually frees him up to an extent to be flexible to the needs of those beyond the party faithful. Considering his party had never been in power, many of their initial hard core ideological stances were probably in part reflective of the mistakes made by people not used to governing.

One might make the opposite argument that the 'soft nationalists' who want to use the threat of separation to drag the rest of the nation to the negotiating table may change their tack if they realise that their political influence is waning due to the burgeoning population elsewhere. They may realise that in order to have influence, you must be at the negotiating table, which means electing someone from the party in power. Again, the ball really seems to be in the court of Quebec to a large extent, and the province still does have the influence to set the national agenda. Quebecers have really manipulated the political system in their favour masterfully for many decades now, and I'm sure they'll find a way to make this union work for them again if they really want to.