2010/01/31

Explaining Québec separatism again

Many Canadians are under the impression that Québec's independence isn't economically feasible and that the people who support it have been brainwashed by demagogues. They discard any argumentation that goes beyond the economic rationale.

Economics are important. In 2006, the Québécois put $95B in the governments' coffers [Google translation]. Of this amount, $38.4B went to Ottawa; $47.4B went to the province; $9.1B went to municipalities. In return, Ottawa sent $5.5B in equalization and $7.7B in programs that all provinces equally benefit from. Of course, there doesn't stop the benefits of the federation. Like all Canadians, citizens of the province have access to many federal services such as National Defense and Employment Insurance.

Forecasting how an independent Québec would financially be feasible isn't an easy task. François Legault tried in May of 2005 and published Finances d'un Québec souverain [in French only]. When he did, I expected solid counterarguments from federalist forces. Michel Audet, then provincial minister of Finance, simply shoved it by the way side, deeming it jovialiste. The Globe and Mail denounced it without much justification. I gather they felt the attempt was so inane it didn't deserve much attention. I was disappointed by the absence of a substantiated response.

In his recent book, Parizeau puts forward that the province's debt is less, in gross domestic product (GDP) percentage, than the USA's and the average of OECD countries. Some argue that OECD figures include all debts and that a fair comparison should include the province's share of the federal debt and municipal obligations. I haven't heard or read Parizeau's reaction.

Things aren't clear. And it certainly seems strange that the financial component of the federalist-sovereigntist debate hasn't been the object of a clear demonstration from either camp. It lends me to believe that an independent Québec is financially viable even if it's better off within Canada (especially with the economic mishaps of recent years).

So... why does sovereignty appeal to, more or less, 40% of the province's population? Canada's a great country... how can this appeal reach such proportions? In today's communication age, demagoguery isn't nearly enough to explain it.

Over the centuries, French Canadians have developed their very own culture. A culture based on French, but a culture which is very different from what you'd find in other French-speaking states. In the last century or so, French has been steadily declining in the majority of provinces without great concern from the federal legislature. With its French-speaking majority, Québec has been able to use its provincial legislative platform and counter this trend.

Do Canadians realize that a second language with international influence is an asset to the country? Do Canadians recognize that Québec's weight in a predominantly English-speaking continent is a quasi unique situation? Are Canadians aware that Québec is among the few states in the world where it's possible to have a successful life without knowing a single word in the majority's language?

Most Canadians are in favor of some sort of measures to protect the French language. Yet, there is a profound dichotomy between what many Canadians deem acceptable and what many Québécois feel is necessary. To put it bluntly, homegrown culture is alive and well in Québec (see Canadian content, Part 2 and Part 3) despite the constant erosion the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has imposed unto the province's Charter of the French language for over 30 years.

Don't misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with where Canadians want to go culturally. It's just that it's not where the Québécois wish to go.

Canada and the USA are different countries, yet they share more similarities than Québec does with the rest of the country. Is it justified for Canada to be independent from the USA? Of course... we're looking at two very different societies. Why wouldn't it be conceivable for Québec do go its own way?

Obviously, independence isn't the Holy Grail. It would come with its own set of challenges, but it would give the province full autonomy in managing its own cultural destiny.

The majority of Québécois agrees that Québec's culture is worthwhile. What distinguishes most sovereigntists from most federalists is the difference in assessing the future of Québécois culture in the Canadian context and the financial advantage of the federation. Very very simply put, there are two ways to counter the sovereignty movement:
  1. Give the province more leverage in managing its own cultural destiny.
  2. Make the province financially dependent upon the country.
And Canadians are the ones holding the key to either scenario...

7 comments:

James said...
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James said...
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Michel Bolduc said...

The numbers I put forward simply illustrate that an independent Québec wouldn't be the poor state many Canadians envision. Of course, it would loose in terms of economies of scale, but other countries such as Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland are economically successful with populations similar to the province's.

What I'm putting forward is that an independent Québec is viable economically, but that it's most probably better off within the Canadian federation. From where I stand, there's not much of a financial justification for Québec to remain within, or to part from, Canada. If it were so obvious one way or the other, it seems clear to me that the favored party would have made an unequivocal demonstration to shut the debate.

You refer to our richer social programs as if Ottawa were the only one providing for them. You should know that tax rates in Québec are significantly higher than in most provinces. Anyone from the rest of the country who moved to the province will testify that at equal salary, her/his paycheck shrunk. At the end of the day, if your provincial government collected as much taxes as mine, Ontarians could also have richer programs. It's so blatantly obvious... as you put it. Of course, an independent Québec would have to fill in for all the services its population currently receives from Ottawa and would certainly have to challenge the generosity of its social programs.

Still, my main point is that most of the rationale behind separatism is motivated by culture, not by economics.

Now... being a distinct ethnic group doesn't automatically demand a distinct nation-state. Both are related only when a framework isn't satisfactory to all groups involved. The federal status quo isn't satifactory for most Québécois. Meech Lake wasn't satisfactory for most Canadians outside the province.

I'm sure many minorities feel excluded from the sovereignty movement. Many Québécois also feel excluded from the Canadian population. But as you know, the Québécois are generally welcome in other provinces; so are minorities in the sovereignty movement (see Sovereigntist tokenism).

You mention you "could see the justification for a separate state on the basis of ethnicity if the unique language and culture of French-Quebeckers were somehow threatened by the majority". Well... this is the case in the minds of many of them when referring to the Canadian majority.

James said...
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fxstb07 said...

If French Quebec has a 'cultural' right to independence then the same can be said of the island of Montreal whose only connection to the rest of the province is the enforcement of the French language. I'll see your referendum with one of our own. After all, on the island ethnics and anglos are the majority and our interests and culture as Canadians is obviously not on the priority list in Quebec City or anywhere else in this province for that matter.

Michel Bolduc said...

I don't agree with your assessment of Québec's priorities regarding your interests and culture.

As an English-speaker, you know very well that the Anglo community has its own daily newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, hospitals, elementary schools, high schools, CEGEP... in fact, English universities in Québec receive approximately 25% of provincial subsidies while the Anglophone population accounts for less than 10% of the province's residents. The English language super hospital falls in that same category, an investment that far exceeds the proportion the community represents. The provincial government also provides all its services in English. Its website is even partially available in Spanish.

Québec's population consume a lot of West Island cultural products such as Arcade Fire, Simple Plan and Patrick Watson. These artists are commonly seen on French language TV. In contrast, the Canadian consumption of Québécois cultural products seems dismal.

Nevertheless, your point about the West Island having the right to its own referendum is hard to debate.

Saraline said...

Hi Michel. I'm an anglo living in Montreal and I'm enjoying your blog, but I just want to point something out. You said "The provincial government also provides all its services in English." In my experience, this isn't entirely true.

I got laid off from my job while I was on maternity leave, and when my maternity leave was finished, I had to go on welfare. Now, I am trying to learn French and will usually use French if I'm at a store, or in a restaurant, etc. but when I went into the welfare office to explain my situation, I wasn't comfortable using French because I didn't think that I'd be able to describe my situation effectively. When I asked the woman there if it was okay to speak in English, she assumed that I didn't understand any French at all and started ranting in French about how I had a French name and couldn't speak French and she called me "un couchon."

The next time I had to go into the welfare office, I tried in French first, but when the conversation was getting too complicated for me, I asked her if we could switch to English and she told me that my French was perfectly fine and refused to speak to me in English. The person who takes care of my case at the welfare office also does not speak English.

Now, granted, people in other provinces who are on welfare also have to deal with people at the welfare office who are less than polite to them, so it might be a "let's treat people who are welfare like crap" thing. In contrast, when I was on maternity leave and had to speak with people at Emploi-Québec, they were always polite to me and were willing to speak English if I wasn't comfortable using French. I'm just saying that, in my experience, not all government services in Quebec are provided in English.