Canadian growth

Canadian growth

Quebec, the last province of Canada to grant women the vote, became the fifth to inaugurate a female premier this Wednesday, as separatist leader Pauline Marois was officially sworn in.

Officially, but not publicly. As Canadian political inaugurations require an oath of loyalty to Queen Elizabeth, the viciously anti-monarchy Marois opted to recite the required words quickly and quietly in one of the legislature’s backroom closets before emerging proudly to deliver her maiden speech as first minister.

This, I suppose, is the sort of showy gesture one can easily take or leave. The monarchy is as polarizing outside of Quebec as it is within, after all, and it’s possible (but difficult) to imagine some republican premier in Anglo Canada offering a similarly ostentatious snub to Her Maj. Much less relatable, however, was the other symbolic high point of the festivities — the removal of all Canadian flags from the provincial legislature.

Separatist irritation at the Maple Leaf is nothing new; Quebec’s last pro-secession premier famously referred to it as a “red rag,” and deemed it as provocative to the nationalist sensibilities of French-Canadians as a matador’s cape to a bull. The fact that the Maple Leaf was purposely designed to be soothing and inoffensive to French opinion matters not; as a creation of the federal government it will always stand primarily as an icon of federalism to those who have chosen to loathe the concept.

In the aftermath of headlines like this, one of the most common questions foreigners ask me is why Canadians care one way or another if Quebec leaves, or, more properly, why the Canadian federal government bothers to put up a fight. It’s increasingly well-known that Quebec separatism would almost certainly hurt Quebec itself much, much more than the rest of Canada — the province is cripplingly dependent on welfare-like “transfer payments” from the other provinces in order to prop up its excessively generous social programs, for instance, and much of the economic investment that’s presently there would surely flee in the aftermath of independence. (It’s fleeing already in fact; the unapologetically socialistic high-taxing, high-regulating, highly interventionist mindset of Quebec’s governing class has long made the French province one of the least attractive places to do business in North America, and Premier Marois’ isolationist agenda to further limit the rights of Quebeckers and foreigners to study and work in English seems unlikely to curb that tide.) In such a context, why not just let them sink or swim in their own hubris?

For long while there was hope in the rest of the country that Quebec was just one vote away from abandoning its economic illiteracy and omnipresent victim complex. The recently-departed Premier Charest, who Marois unseated, was initially supposed to be a federalist-capitalist savior of sorts, as was the now long-forgotten libertarian party of Mario Dumont, which had a brief and meteoric rise in the early 2000s. But in the aftermath of Charest’s absurd capitulations to an brazenly Marxist student movement and Mrs. Marois’ electoral victory, these hopes now seem more remote than ever. Despite decades of patience, the province still shows no real signs of assimilating towards any sort of ideological or cultural Canadian mean, a status quo which this most recent election, with its strange web of nationalist and leftist parties that exist nowhere else in the nation, has only helped solidify.

But to answer the question itself, it’s hardly evident that Canadians do care about Quebec anymore. Recent polls have shown Anglo Canada’s support for a Quebec divorce has never been higher — numbers which are probably understated since a lot of Canadians who oppose separatism do so out of angry spite for the French province, rather than affinity. Likewise, the fact that the current Canadian federal government headed by Mr. Harper is the most openly un-French in generations seems to have done little to hurt his popularity. The repeated electoral successes of a Conservative prime minister with no French-Canadian blood or background has actually gone quite a long way in disproving the theory that Canadians have some great desire to be led by bicultural men like Pierre Trudeau or Brian Mulroney heading bicultural unity governments. Harper takes a lot of flack on a lot of fronts, but the increasingly trivial observation that his party’s caucus holds the lowest number of Quebec seats of any majority government since the Great Depression is rarely one of them.

During the election, Premier Marois’ surprised some observers by cockily admitting what earlier separatist leaders had previously plotted in secret — that her main strategy as premier would be to continually pick unwinable jurisdictional fights with the federal government on the premise that any loss would be bound to stir up nationalist fervor back home. A constant stream of bluff-callings in the pursuit winning conditions” for a separation referendum, in other, words, of which the flag flap can be easily seen as the opening shot. For now, Harper does not seem to have taken the bait — his MPs remained conspicuously mum in response to Pauline’s game of hide-the-Maple Leaf, and some commentators have suggested there is actually a fair bit of common ground between a nationalist premier and a Tory PM generally cool with the philosophy of subsidiarity. 

Harper’s ability to defend the territorial integrity of Canada, in other words, may very well require little more than a few uncontroversial concessions to the sovereignist government here and there while simultaneously reacting with bored silence towards its most aggressive attempts at provocation.

To employ the cliched metaphor of a married couple, Canada’s French-English arrangement may have devolved to sleeping in separate beds and speaking only when necessary, all the while brimming with barely-suppressed feelings of mutual contempt.

“It’s just easier this way,” thinks Harper the loveless husband, and he’s probably right. But is a mean-spirited, frosty partnership ultimately more productive and pleasant than an amicable, negotiated separation?

We’ll find out soon enough, I guess. We’ve certainly tried everything else.


  1. @SideshowJon36

    From your essay, sounds like Quebec is French for California

  2. OldsVistaCruiser

    That's funny, because a friend of mine who lives in suburban Montreal uses the term "Canafornia."
    No, he's not French-Canadian, but instead, his parents or grandparents were immigrants to Canada from the Ukraine. I joke that he can speak three languages, but can't think in any one of them clearly! ;-)

  3. Hannibal

    So, obviously you just wanted to get a jab at California and din't care that your comment made no sense.

  4. M_T_Cicero

    I've mused on this before, but I'll toss it out there again since it's topical: I have to wonder what would happen if the Canadian government made it clear that independence was a clear break from Canada, and unequivocally stated that there would be zero chance of a currency union, very little chance of a customs union, etc. In other words, I have to wonder what the reaction to an "Out means out" policy would be and whether that would impact sentiments in Quebec. So much of the independence movement is based around a presumption of "having it both ways" that I cannot help but suspect that an unequivocal policy of rejecting that proposition would erode support by a few points.

    Edit: The other thing I've wondered is this: What would happen if, presuming that polls run against independence pretty strongly over time, the Canadian government more or less forced a referendum? Basically, rather than letting the PQ "pick and choose" their referendum conditions (i.e. waiting for polling to look good for it), the Federal government basically told them "You want your referendum? Fine, then get it over with" and forced the question on independence on terms like I've noted above (i.e. An option of "Independence, with the understanding that the federal government will not entertain a currency union, will not guarantee any other conditions, and will immediately cease transfer payments.").

  5. OldsVistaCruiser

    We have a similar issue with Puerto Rico down here in the States. It's considered a "commonwealth" (not to be confused with the four states that style themselves as "Commonwealth" – KY, MA, PA and VA), which is a step above a territory and a step below statehood.

    There have been numerous referenda in PR asking residents whether they want statehood, independence or keep the status quo. All have been split 33/33/33 (with the decimal among all 3). I wouldn't mind another star on the U.S. flag.

    Many Puerto Ricans don't want to give up their U.S. citizenship, but they don't want to pay federal income tax either (a benefit of living in PR). They also would gain at least 3 voting seats (2 senators, 1 representative) in Congress if they chose statehood.

  6. Zulu

    No, the vote was never 33/33/33. In the last referendum, 47% voted for statehood, 50% voted for the status quo, and 3% voted for independence. Almost no Puertorrican wants independence.

    Puerto Rico is VERY different than Quebec. My impression is that Puerto Ricans actually love the US, and may vote for statehood definitively this November.

  7. Patrick

    I wonder how all those anti-immigration folks would feel about that. It would undermine quite a few of their arguments heh. Also, I'm unfamiliar with the process of becoming a state. Does the territory just say "I want to be a state" and congress lets them or is there something more complex?

  8. Jake_Ackers

    Anti-illegal immigration is not the same as anti-immigration. Congress can also simply just make Puerto Rico a state. But considering the fact the state is so poor and most people there don't know English and that most Puerto Ricans don't want to be a state, I doubt it will become one.

  9. ThePsudo

    Typically, the territory has a referendum about it. If a majority wants statehood, Congress votes on it. A simple majority in both houses sends it to the President for a signature. Ta-da: statehood.

    I'd very much like Puerto Rico to become a state, even though it'd be a very Democrat state and I'm very not.

  10. M_T_Cicero

    Yeah…it tends to be about 45% or thereabouts for statehood, 3-4% for independence, and around 50% for neither of those options. The referendum this November is looking to be a real mess, too, given the split question.

    Quebec really is another kettle of fish since, if I had to guess, you'd have decent support for straight independence, a lot more support for a "free association"-esque status (which is what the PQ seems to argue for, anyway), and somewhere between a solid plurality and a majority for remaining part of Canada. In particular, I'd point out that the PQ won…with only about 1/3 of the vote. They haven't broken 40% since 1998, and only broke 45% once (in 1981, when the UN was in the process of collapsing).

    And of course, there's another question here: With some of the antics the PQ presumably intends to attempt, will they even have legislative support in the National Assembly? It seems plausible that if Marois picks too aggressive of a fight on one or more issues, the CAQ might pull the rug out from under her.

  11. Kyle

    I really feel far too much is being made of this. Marois won by the slimmest of margins against a deeply unpopular opponent. She's in a handicapped minority, with the majority of seats opposed to a referendum, and there'll almost certainly be another election before 2014. My impression if Quebec's temperature on sovereignty is as a mirror of Canadians and royalty. Between two strong poles, a majority feeling something between apathy and antipathy.

    But hey, fearmongering sells papers and gets votes.

  12. spaaaaaaaaaaaaaan

    Not only that, but she won by the slimmest of margins against a government that had just be slapped with some extremely serious corruption issues.

    Judging by the comments by Quebecers online (which admittedly aren't a great thermometer) it sounds like even a lot of people who voted for Marois did so while holding their noses.

  13. Jake_Ackers

    I honestly think if the Conservatives just said no to Quebec they would win more seats elsewhere than they lose in Quebec.

  14. Taylor

    Considering that's exactly what happened last election….

  15. M_T_Cicero

    Just an amusing observation: While the PQ got a (rather weak) minority government in the election, they only gained three seats vs. 2008 and actually lost substantial vote share. I can't help but wonder if, should Marois make a nuisance of herself, this might turn into a very bad time for the PQ in the long run, especially with both QS eating at their left-wing base and the CAQ pulling away soft nationalists and more conservative folks.

  16. prestwickuk

    Precisely. Nobody seems to heed the examples of the SNP in Scotland and the Catalans in that if you take a softly-softly approach to gaining independence via a gradual erosion of the links between the two constituent parts you will stand a far better chance than by basically acting like a chauvinistic jerk.

  17. Devil Child

    It'd definitely be bad to have a new nation in North America. The area's not just peaceful because of the great wealth of both nations, the political stability, and lack of sectarian tendencies are just as important ingredients.

    I certainly don't think secessionist Quebec would create a Civil War scenario, but if people are angry enough to shoot each other over these policies, it could be a North Ireland-lite scenario. Secessionist politics are, and have always been, a poison for peace, stability, and prosperity, Quebec won't change that.

  18. Marc P

    2 quick comments.
    1. Most businesses that would leave because of separation already have in the 80's with the first referendum. Most business head offices were in Montréal before and since moved to Toronto, which explains the industrial jump from MTL to TO.
    2. If Québec would have separated, it would have already. It hasn't and chances are that this is not a concern (separation) to most Québeçois.
    A final note, technically Québec never voted to separate from Canada. The referendum question are summarize best as: «The Québec provincial gouvernment will negociate with the federal gouvernment. If negociations are succesful then Québec signs the Constitution, if unsuccesful then Québec is allowed by a majority of it's citizen to separate.» It was to be used as a strong bargaining chip with the federal gouvernment.

  19. JonasB

    I really, really want to see Ottawa call the secessionists' bluff. You want to be independent? Fine. Do it. It'll be the political equivalent of a ten year old running away from home: they'll be back once their stomach starts rumbling.

  20. Betsumei

    I'd put good odds on a Quebec separation party/referendum getting pretty solid support if they ran it outside of Quebec. If you asked Albertans, say, to vote, I bet a good number of them would gladly see them off.

  21. Dave

    I agree entirely. Problem is, the federal governement kept telling the Québécois (and they did so for roughly 30 years) that they wouldn't survive outside the federation. You would want to somehow "force" separation upon them now? I'm afraid it's too late now. The sovereignist movement has never been so unpopular. They won't separate anytime soon. The RoC will still continue to pump money in that province for say, eternity. I find it quite ironic that the Canadians are gonna blame the federalists in Québec for actually NOT leaving the country.

  22. M_T_Cicero

    In the long run, I think there's a shot that Quebec's gravy train gets at least partly derailed by shifting demographics. In 1984, Quebec had 75 of 282 seats (26.6% of the seat total). In 2011, Quebec had 75 of 308 seats (24.4% of the seat total). In 2015, Quebec will have 78 of 338 seats (23.1% of the seat total).

    This trend shows no signs of reversing, and at some point it will cease to be to parties' advantage to fight over Quebec's seats when more ground can be made outside of Quebec beating up on them. This will go double if the BQ makes a comeback on some level (entirely plausible; most polls I see put them high enough in the polls to win a lot more than four seats next time around…but the Tories can't break out of the mid teens there, either) or the province remains the "other guy" within Canada that the rest of the country seems to pivot against. If we get 40 years down the road and Quebec is only 18% of Parliament, where is the incentive going to be to fight over those votes when there are far, far more seats to be had out West?

    Quebec will be protected to some extent by equalization payments…but there seems to be plenty of room to hurt them in other funding allocations that /are/ at the discretion of the government and/or Parliament.

  23. Yannick

    It's important to remember that support for separatism stands at 28%, and that the main separatist party only obtained 31.9% of the vote (compared to 58.3% for the other two main parties, one which is officially federalist and the other which is neither, but not in favor of separation for at least 10 years).

    Pauline has absolutely no mandate for pushing separation, and is doing it solely of her own volition trying to drag the rest of the Province with her.

    Remember this before making wide-sweeping generalizations, please.

  24. Peable

    support for separatism stand at 28%… yet 40% voted for speratists parties…

    find the logic in that ;/

  25. Yannick

    Conflation of left-wing/separatism and right-wing/federalism. Simple enough, no?

  26. M_T_Cicero

    That plus protest voting. I suspect that more than a few voters voted PQ to "blow off steam" at the Liberals. Even if they didn't want a PQ government, what they did NOT want was a Liberal government staggering back into office by default. And of course, I'm imagining the Liberals trying to govern after having lost 20 or so seats and having their leader lose his seat…/that/ would have been an interesting scenario to watch play out.

  27. Peable

    The question you stated was the one asked during the referendum of 1980.
    Québec voted for seccession in 1995 :

  28. Smpat04

    Unless I'm not reading that right, they voted against it (by a really thin margin- 3'2 mn vs 3.4 mn) in 1995. I'm hoping to hear more about this as the situation develops.

  29. Smpat04

    Apparently im still asleep. 2.3mn to 2.36 mn

  30. MegaByte

    The main point of this paper is pointing out statistical election fraud in Russia and Uganda, but the Quebec vs. English Canada plot is also pretty striking.

  31. Mike

    … There is a lot of flaw in that text, most coming from the fact that points of view are summarized as facts. But others like the state of the debt, the isolationist policies of Marois, the attractivness of the province for industries… just not ok.

  32. Mike

    I will not argue a lot, since I'm not writing in english so often (and as such, I'm sorry for any errors of mine). But let me say this: When you look at the FACTS, numbers without speculation, québec is not that much in debt. In facts, it should not even attract that much attention, compared to any other coutry's debt. Marois does NOT want to isolate. She want to protect what people fought for in the past; not unleash attack on english people. And, as for the interest on the industries: No. Just No. That is just bullshit. The natural ressources in the province won't go away with a separation. The same goes with our university, research centers, and brains. Some of the last, yes, might go. But what are you implying? That no others will come? that Québec is know over the world, but only because of the canada's support? We're no at war, and it's a beautiful place. …

  33. Mike

    Your point of view is tainted by that "we'reallmighty" opinion that so much (not all) canadian from the ROC have. Argument of fear, biaised stats, degrattory comment use as argument, and many more are only some of the many reasons why some people want to separate.

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