The Québécois aren't receptive

So... the Conservatives settled the fiscal imbalance, recognized the Québécois nation and gave it UNESCO representation. Despite these gestures of good faith, Québec sent only ten members of the governing party to Ottawa in 2008. Even worst... a recent EKOS Research survey puts the Tories at 40.7 per cent support compared to 25.5 per cent for the Liberals nationwide, but gives the Bloc 50 seats, up from 47.

What's wrong?... are the Québécois ungrateful?... why aren't they receptive?

The fiscal imbalance is a discrepancy between means and responsibilities. This situation was particularly acute during Paul Martin's tenure as finance minister in the late 90s, while Ottawa experienced repeated surpluses and the province experienced repeated deficits. In March 2002, the Report of Commission on Fiscal Imbalance (a.k.a. the Séguin Report) recommended three steps for eliminating the fiscal imbalance:
  1. Stopping financial pressure by increasing transfer payments for health and education;
  2. Freeing a new tax room for the provinces;
  3. Restricting "federal spending powers" to prevent overlaps with provincial jurisdictions.
In March 2007, the Conservatives provided a package to settle the fiscal imbalance. It included a new, enriched equalization formula, increased transfer payments for post-secondary education, training and infrastructure, and key reforms to the way health and social spending is structured. The package did provide some fresh air, but transfers for post-secondary education still aren't at the levels they were in the early 90s and measures to address the second and third steps recommended by the Séguin Report remain to be seen.

In November 2006, the Conservatives passed the Québécois nation motion (see The Québécois form a Nation). For many Canadians in other provinces, the motion is a major breakthrough for Québec. For the majority of Québécois, the motion simply is an acknowledgement of what they already know. French Canadian culture is a prominent defining characteristic of the Canadian identity and Québec is an important component of this culture. The Conservatives' motion is a step in the right direction for Canada, but what will come out of it in practical terms remains an unanswered question.

In May 2006, the Québec-Canada agreement on UNESCO entered into force. It gives the province permanent representation to Canada's mission to UNESCO. In practical terms, it guarantees access to all official documents and participation to internal efforts before Canada takes a position or votes.

The Canadian identity has been marked by French Canadian stubbornness (see The Québécois aren't truly Canadians). When it comes to popular culture, the Québécois watch and listen to more homegrown productions than other Canadians (see Canadian content, Part 2 and Part 3). With its rich production, Québec contributes more than its share to Canadian cultural exports. The province was also instrumental in UNESCO's 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (see Cultural diversity).

The Québec-Canada agreement on UNESCO now ensures that, before taking a stand on cultural issues, Canada will hear Québec's point of view. When it comes to asserting its own cultural distinctiveness, Canada doesn't have much to show off. Shouldn't one render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's?

The Québécois aren't being receptive. Is anyone wondering why?... and what are they doing about it?


Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note that nobody outside of Québec takes the idea of the fiscal imbalance seriously, and most outright deny it. It's not a coincidence that the province with the highest debt and richest social programmes would be having a hard time balancing it books. It rather resembles the situation Jean Chrétien experienced when he became Prime Minister, in fact. Perhaps the problem isn't Canada, but Québec's mismanaging of its books? Perhaps if Québec paid market cost for its infrastructure, etc., it wouldn't have so much difficulty balancing its books? And anyway, when the country was 500 billion dollars in debt, how can we seriously speak of a 'surplus'?

Now that the federal government is itself in deficit, to talk of a fiscal imbalance is ridiculous. The federal government doesn't have the revenue it requires to fulfill its own mandate, so the idea it should be shovelling off wealth in a redistribution programme is irrational. It has its own bills to pay and can't look to someone else to do it for the federal government. If the rationale for the fiscal imbalance was that the federal government had too much tax room because of its surpluses while Québec ran deficits, would Québec recognise a fiscal imbalance if it returned to balanced books before Ottawa and do something to address that? Somehow I think not, which suggests to me this isn't really about the fiscal 'balance' of the nation.

It's been very interesting to watch the whole Québecois/French-Canadians are a nation debate unfold. Everyone wants something concrete to happen now. I recall during the Meech Lake Accord, Charlottetown Accord, etc., that English-Canadians were being told to vote for recognising Québec as a 'distinct society', to constitutionalize that, in fact, and that it's a mere recognition of an existing fact and does not mean new powers for Québec. English-Canadians obviously didn't believe that they were being told the truth of the effect of constitutionalizing such a clause, and didn't want to vote for some amorphous recognition, the real concrete meaning of which they were unsure (which was interpreted in Québec- and spread by sovereigntists purposely- as an insult and an inability to understand that Québec is unique when English-Canadians were rejecting essentially an unclear proposal). It seems certain now that that was the correct thing to do, because it was never really about mere recognition, but about powers. If Québec wants powers, or French-Canadians want powers, and to have those powers constitutionalized, the least that should happen is that this is honestly discussed and proposed to English-Canadians before the vote is held. As has been amply demonstrated, when concrete proposals are put forth (like UNESCO), there is no real opposition in English-Canada to ensuring Québec and all French-Canadians have the ability to promote and protect their culture, which seems to suggest if this different tack is taken, it will bear fruit, and English-Canadians are negotiating in good faith.

If Québecois/Franco-Quebecers are unreceptive to federalist parties, it's probably because they've had their tactics work splendidly for them hitherto, so why change? I'm sure there's also an element of complacency. There's the issue of better organisation of the Bloc, which is a real fact that federalist parties must address. And also an overwhelming lack of vision on the federal scene right now that doesn't just fail to capture the imaginations of Quebecers, but all Canadians. And if Quebecers start voting for federalist parties, it would mean they would have to take a national interest and be willing to compromise for the sake of others when necessary, something they don't appear to be willing to do as they largely support a party whose leader has stated, indeed boasted, he will pursue only the interests of Quebec.

Michel Bolduc said...

I assume you're the same anonymous writer who commented my precedent post on Oct. 11. Ever thought of starting a blog aimed at French-speaking Québécois? You could call it something like "Chroniques du Canada anglais". I'd certainly be reading it.

Thanks for your input.

P.S.: I agree with you. To talk of a fiscal imbalance in the current economic situation is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that was me before as well, and thanks very much for the kind compliment Michel! Actually, I'm still very new to blogs, and found yours after reading a comment by you, I presume, on the Globe & Mail that linked back here. So perhaps in the future, though not quite yet. I'll definitely let you know, though. :-) In the meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy your thoughtful, well-written blog!

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see the recent byelection win in Quebec for the Conservatives after this post of yours. It seems you don't pay attention to Quebeckers, as the Conservatives haven't been particularly lately, and wham! You get a riding that formerly belonged to the Bloc. Though I understand this is an area that the Liberals do well in provincially, so perhaps the people were voting for the MP as opposed to the party. Who knows?