Similar diagnoses and different prescriptions for Canada’s Quebec problem

Jacques Parizeau, La souveraineté du Québec: Hier, aujourd’hui et demain. Montreal: Michel Brulé, 2009. 254 pages.

Brian Lee Crowley, Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values. Toronto: Key Porter, 2009. 359 pages.

Reviewed by Brian Tanguay

Jacques Parizeau once famously remarked that for English Canada, the Quebec question is like a neverending trip to the dentist. Since rational individuals should seek to minimize pain as much as possible, English Canadians, in Parizeau’s view, ought to have a deep-seated interest in achieving a quick resolution to our constitutional conundrum. Parizeau has spent much of his political career preaching the benefits of no-fault divorce in the form of Quebec independence. A clean split would benefit both parties, since the marriage of English Canada and Quebec has led to all sorts of economic pathologies: wasteful competition between the two levels of government, overlapping jurisdictions, a lack of transparency and accountability and the inability of citizens to identify who is responsible for what, both economically and politically. The current federal system makes rational economic planning for each entity difficult, if not impossible.

Parizeau’s diagnosis of the causes of our constitutional impasse shares certain similarities with the one found in Brian Lee Crowley’s Fearful Symmetry, although the two authors’ prescriptions differ quite markedly. Starting from an entirely different set of assumptions, Crowley also diagnoses Canada as having a Quebec problem, though one that will recede as demographic shifts reduce Quebec’s political weight.

For his part, Parizeau, in his latest book, Un Québec souverain, itemizes the various reasons why he believes Quebec independence could possibly be a boon to both English Canada and Quebec – or, at the very least, open up the possibility for improvement: “In fact, the federal system as practised is a source of waste and fragmentation, and makes the realization of coherent objectives very uncertain. In this sense, the independence of Quebec will not ensure that things improve, but it will make such an outcome possible” (emphasis added).1

Parizeau is forced to admit, however, that the wind seems to have gone out of the sails of the sovereignty movement, at least for the moment. On the basis of a single public opinion survey sponsored by the Bloc Québécois in March 2009, Parizeau asserts that a solid majority of francophones in Quebec (just over 56 per cent) favour outright independence. Almost two thirds of them (65 per cent) feel that Quebec has the necessary human, financial and natural resources to achieve sovereignty, but only 38 per cent of francophones believe that sovereignty will actually be achieved.2

At the same time, just under 62 per cent of francophones believe that the federal system can be reformed in a way that would satisfy both Quebecers and English Canadians. Parizeau concludes,“We are swimming in total confusion. At first glance, French-speaking Quebecers do not seem to know where they want to go.”3 He notes that the constitutional status quo satisfies no one, but a reform of federalism would occur only after the Quebec government had won a referendum on sovereignty, to head off secession (this is a variation on the classic “knife-to-the-throat-of-English-Canada” strategy advocated by Léon Dion). Therefore, Parizeau infers that the only feasible solution is to increase the credibility of the sovereignty project, both by making it more pertinent to the lives of Quebecers and by highlighting its advantages, domestically and in the face of globalization.

Parizeau acknowledges that Canada “will do everything it can to prevent Quebec’s accession to sovereignty because, without Quebec, its identity with respect to the United States will rapidly become problematic and its place in the world reduced.”4 Because of this, the path to sovereignty, in the wake of a Yes vote in a future referendum, will depend crucially on obtaining international recognition for the newly independent state.

Parizeau dismisses the federal government’s Clarity Act as entirely irrelevant to this process, quoting Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, Archbishop of Montreal: “It is up to the people to decide, and not the Supreme Court .”5 Repeating his assertions from an earlier book on the same subject,6 Parizeau claimsthat in 1995 the Parti Québécois government had secured “numerous and strong” commitments from the Mitterrand government in France that it would recognize an independent Quebec if the Yes side won the referendum. Many countries in la Francophonie would doubtless have followed suit, as would, eventually, the United States.7 This argument is no more convincing now than it was when Parizeau first articulated it in 1997, and it glosses over the fact that quick international recognition of an independent Quebec would be extremely unlikely in the event of a misleading question or a disputed referendum process. This means that, in the end, the Clarity Act has in fact changed the rules of the game substantively.

Although Parizeau tries to address sceptics as well as supporters of Quebec independence, very little in his book is likely to do much to sway the opponents of independence, whether they live in English Canada or Quebec. Parizeau does do an adequate job, though, of underscoring the economically irrational nature of the existing federal system. For political reasons – competition between the two different levels of government for the hearts and minds of Quebec’s citizens – everything is done by twos in Canada. One glaring example of this, he notes, is that many books published in Quebec bear two different sets of acknowledgements, thanking both the federal and the provincial government for financial support through programs that effectively compete with each other. Parizeau’s economic analysis of the “Quebec problem” thus points to the absolute necessity for English Canadians, at the very least, to contemplate alternatives to the political status quo, whether or not they suffer from a severe case of constitutional fatigue.

While Parizeau believes that another referendum on sovereignty is unavoidable if meaningful political change is to occur, whether in the form of outright sovereignty for Quebec or some type of renewed federalism, Crowley contends that the Quebec problem will more or less take care of itself as demographic shifts inexorably reduce Quebec’s political weight in Canada. For the past 50 years, since the election of Jean Lesage’s Liberal Quebec government, Quebec’s demands for greater autonomy have overdetermined political debate in all of Canada. That, however, is about to change, as the baby boomers ease into retirement, labour shortages in the country become chronic and Quebec’s share of the Canadian population shrinks because of its low birth rate and low immigration levels.

Crowley is the founding president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a Halifax-based think tank with a decidedly promarket, antistatist bent. He has recently helped to establish the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which, according to a job advertisement that was sent over the political science listserv POLCAN on April 8, 2010, is “a national think tank with the goal of contributing, through thought leadership, to a freer and more prosperous future for Canada.” I am not sure what kind of contribution Fearful Symmetry will make to “thought leadership” in this country, since what Crowley has produced is a neopuritan manifesto married to a relentlessly one-sided assault on the “Quebec model” of a more egalitarian, more collectivist, more étatiste, more social democratic – in short, more European – society than the rest of North America.

This is more than a little disconcerting, given Crowley’s assertion that “Manichean explanations casting the world in a comforting two-dimensional battle between good and evil are rarely much help in understanding a world composed largely of shades of gray.”8 Yet there is little gray in Crowley’s account: he ascribes virtually all of Canada’s current economic woes (and those of the last 50 years) to the twin evils of baby boomer greed and “millenarian Quebec nationalism,” with the latter singled out as by far the biggest culprit. I could not help thinking, when reading this screed, that the book is a kind of riff on the theme song from the South Park movie Bigger Longer & Uncut. Only in this case it is not “Blame Canada” but “Blame Quebec.”

The burden of Crowley’s argument is that a New Canada was born on June 22, 1960, when Jean Lesage and his Liberal équipe du tonnerre were elected in Quebec. The Old Canada, he argues, was founded on a “ferocious work ethic,” a commitment to minimal government, fiscal rectitude and hostility to individual dependence of any kind on the government or charity. The New Canada is characterized by moral and economic decline in the form of falling fertility rates, rising rates of divorce and abortion, increased welfare dependency and the rise of “pseudo-work” – the Pearson and Trudeau governments, Crowley avers, created “whole new departments with no known function,” such as urban affairs, multiculturalism, science and technology, and sport.

But a hard rain’s a-gonna fall, Crowley predicts: “The fearful symmetry to which the title of the book refers is nothing less than the rise of a New Canada under the impact of Boomers and Quebec nationalism over the last 50 years, and its unwinding over the next 50 years as the Boomer generation and Quebec’s bargaining power with Confederation both recede.”9 The growing political irrelevance of Quebec, according to Crowley, combined with the coming labour crunch (itself a product of declining fertility and the retirement of the massive baby boom generation), will bring Canadians back to their senses, as it were, causing them to embrace once again the values of the Old Canada: the puritan virtues of thrift, self-sacrifice, discipline (especially within the family) and self-reliance. More or less automatically, the size of the state will shrink and the family will grow – literally – to fill the vacuum.

But why should Quebec figure so prominently in this tale of the fall and rise of Old Canada and its values? What was it about the Quiet Revolution that unleashed the moral decay and economic downward spiral that Crowley condemns? Here, the author performs two highly dubious and ultimately unconvincing manoeuvres in order to make his case. First, he claims – contra Louis Hartz, Gad Horowitz, Ken McRae, Harold Innis, George Grant, Seymour Martin Lipset, the theorists of defensive expansionism and many others – that at its origins Canada was a Lockean liberal society, as suspicious of the state as its neighbour to the south: “The spirit of the great liberal individualist John Locke presided over America’s founding debates in the eighteenth century, just as he did over the Confederation debates of the nineteenth.”10

Crowley provides a very selective and highly tendentious reading of Canadian history between 1867 and 1960 in an attempt to prove that our political and intellectual leaders – Macdonald, Laurier, Stephen Leacock and Mackenzie King, among others – were all strong believers in minimalist government and individual responsibility. At times this requires ad hoc rationalizations of writings and actions that clearly indicated a strong commitment to an activist state, as did Mackenzie King’s 1918 tome calling for considerable state intervention in the field of labour relations, Industry and Humanity. So too did King’s labour relations reforms, initially enacted during the Second World War as order-in-council PC 1003. Yet Crowley states only that King was “not averse to introducing just enough minimal welfare state measures to keep the Liberals in office – welfare if necessary, but not necessarily welfare.”11

This exercise in political revisionism leads Crowley to conclude that in 1960, Canadians and Americans evinced similar attitudes towards the role of the state in society, and that Canada was much closer to the United States ideologically than it was to any European welfare state. Crowley notes that in 1960 both Canada and the United States “spent very similar shares of their national wealth on government” – 28.6% of GDP in the case of Canada, 28.4% in the case of the United States.

Interestingly, Crowley does not bother to break down state spending by government department. If he had, he would have drawn attention to the much higher levels of military expenditure in the United States during the height of the Cold War, which indicated at the very least that the role of the state in each country was vastly different, even if government might have accounted for similar levels of spending in both. Nonetheless, Crowley goes on to argue that since the baseline year of 1960, government spending in the United States has increased by about 6 percentage points, while it has swelled by nearly 20 percentage points in Canada. Something happened in Canada to cause it to deviate wildly from its former close ideological counterpart.

This is where Crowley performs his second feat of intellectual prestidigitation. He contends that the fact that Canada’s Boomer generation was “the largest among the industrialized countries” explains only a small part of this divergence from the United States, since the Boomers have everywhere demanded a panoply of state services to ease their transition into the workforce. By far the single most important factor in explaining Canada’s evolution after 1960, according to Crowley, is the rise of Quebec nationalism:

There had to be something else that suddenly supercharged what otherwise had been a rather lazy drift to expanded government in Canada. That something else was the destructive dynamic created by Quebec nationalism that unleashed a bidding war between Ottawa and Quebec City for the loyalty of Quebecers. That bidding war used rapidly expanding government spending as its chief weapon and had important reverberations around the country.12

Blame Quebec! Crowley argues that after 1960 a series of federal governments caved in to Quebec’s demands for an ever larger share of the national economic pie. As well, organized interest groups – trade unionists, civil servants and municipalities, among others – in the other provinces looked to Quebec for inspiration, and spineless governments were only too happy to give in to their every demand in order to buy their political support. This has led to a welter of government policies that create dependency on the state, and Crowley believes that the state is a “temptation to immorality and a character-corrupting institution when it is permitted to engage in excessive redistribution.”13

Now, to be sure, the bidding war between Ottawa and Quebec City was one of the factors that contributed to the growth of the Canadian state after 1960. As I noted above, Jacques Parizeau acknowledges as much in his own book. There were, nonetheless, other factors that played a key role in the expansion of the federal state after 1960. One could cite the process of bureaucratic learning, as welfare policies pioneered by the social democratic CCF-NDP government in Saskatchewan, for example, were imitated elsewhere. Moreover, the process of nation-building undertaken by the Pearson and Trudeau administrations after 1963 was only partially a response to Quebec nationalism; to suggest that the architects of the progressive welfare policies in Canada in the 1960s weredriven only by a desire to mollify Quebec nationalism is a complete distortion of reality.

Crowley does not stop there, however. He even suggests that the “old historical symbols and associations that the Québécois linked to their historical ‘humiliation’ as the losers in the struggle to predominate in the new country to the north of the United States had to go. Thus English-speaking Canada agreed to jettison the Red Ensign flag and Dominion Day; to stop singing ‘The Maple Leaf Forever’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’”14 For Crowley, these initiatives could not have reflected a desire on the part of political elites in Canada to carve out a national existence independent from the American and British empires. No: Blame Quebec!

What has emerged in Quebec since the dawn of the Quiet Revolution, according to Crowley, is a pathologically bloated state apparatus that “exploits many of its own citizens, often to the point of driving them out.” It is a society beholden to rent-seeking groups like trade unions and farmers’ organizations that place their own narrow interests above those of the common good. It is a society that holds the rest of Canada hostage, threatening to break up the country if it does not get its own way on economic and social policy. It is a society in which language has become a “proxy for moral virtue or turpitude”: those who speak French are the chosen ones, and those who speak English “lose access to salvation.” It is a society in which language legislation – Bill 101 and its descendents – constitutes a “generalized policy of an exquisitely polite and therefore very Canadian kind of ethnic cleansing.”15 It is a society wracked by family breakdown, low fertility rates, high suicide rates, high incidence of abortions, moral corruption, cronyism, a flagging work ethic, crushing rates of personal taxation and low rates of productivity.

This relentlessly one-sided recitation of the numerous ills of Quebec society is a caricature of social analysis. True, it would be difficult to deny that certain key assumptions of the Quebec model are in desperate need of serious rethinking, and perhaps jettisoning. The so-called Lucides16 have already begun that task, and the most recent budget handed down by the Charest government indicates that some of the sacred cows in the provincial economy, like low rates for hydroelectricity and cut-rate tuition fees, will come under increasing attack in the future.

But this does not mean that Quebec, or English Canada for that matter, will embrace Crowley’s prescription for a better future, which calls for, among other things, a radical downsizing of the welfare state. He claims, on the basis of his stint in the federal Department of Finance as the Clifford Clark Visiting Economist, that there is an “unofficial off-the-record consensus” among senior bureaucrats that at least one third of all federal jobs are essentially useless and could be eliminated without negative consequences. He wants women to have more babies, and to stay home to care for them, and he believes that they will if the various welfare programs that depress fertility levels and compel women’s participation in the workforce are removed: “Suppose that … the state rolls back its ambitions, and Canadians in turn roll back their expectations of what the state can do for them. Family is almost certain to fill at least some of the gap.”17

Crowley’s message will no doubt find a sympathetic audience among the most right-wing elements of the federal Conservative Party, among aggrieved English Canadians who are fed up with Quebec’s “whining” and simply want the problem to go away and among the neoconservative punditocracy – William Gairdner, Charles Murray, William Watson and others – whom he frequently cites with obvious admiration. But I cannot imagine that many Quebecers, whatever their political persuasion, will be able to stomach the all-knowing, dyspeptic and condescending tone that permeates the book. This is a shame, since Crowley has fumbled an opportunity to generate a meaningful debate in both of the solitudes, English and French, about the sustainability and even desirability of the constitutional status quo.


1 “En fait, le système federal tel qu’il est pratiqué est une source de gaspillage, d’éparpillement et rend très aléatoire la realisation d’objectifs coherent. Dans ce sens, l’indépendance du Québec n’assure pas que les choses s’amélioront mais elle le permet” (La souveraineté du Québec, pp. 182–83). All translations are the reviewer’s.

2La souveraineté du Québec, pp. 89, 92–93, 96. Parizeau acknowledges that whether a survey uses the term independence, sovereignty or separation to describe the preferred constitutional option will affect levels of support among respondents. He also argues that the findings in the BQ survey echo those of surveys conducted by CROP and Angus Reid at roughly the same time. However, a quick glance at the website of Léger Marketing, one of the most prominent survey firms in Quebec, shows that in May 2009 only 41 per cent of Quebecers were in favour of Quebec independence (the data were not broken down by language group). This rose to 44 per cent in favour in June 2009. The question employed in the Léger survey makes no reference at all to economic partnership with Canada after a Yes vote, and neither does the one used in the poll sponsored by the Bloc Québécois. For the Léger survey see

3 “On nage en pleine confusion. À première vue, le Québécois de langue française semble ne pas savoir où il veut aller” (La souveraineté du Québec, p. 96).

4 “Canada va tout faire pour empêcher la souveraineté du Québec parce que, sans lui, son identité envers les États-Unis deviendrait rapidement problématique et sa place dans le monde, réduite” (Ibid., p.117).

5 “C’est au peuple de décider et non pas la Cour Suprême” (Ibid., p. 116).

6Pour un Québec souverain (Montreal: VLB Éditeur, 1997).

7 “Nous savions que le gouvernement américain pouvait difficilement laisser la France et quelques-uns des members de la Francophonie faire apparaître, seuls, sans lui, un nouveau pays dans les Amériques” (La souveraineté du Québec, p. 61). (“We knew that the American government would have difficulty letting France and certain members of la Francophonie, alone, without its support, recognize a new country in the Americas.”)

8Fearful Symmetry, p. 40. 9 Ibid., p. 31. 10 Ibid., p. 56. 11 Ibid., p. 46. 12 Ibid., p. 57. 13 Ibid., p. 62. 14 Ibid., p. 94. 15 Ibid., pp. 88, 89, 84.

16 In October 2005, twelve leading Quebec intellectuals of various political stripes, including Lucien Bouchard, Joseph Facal, André Pratte and Pierre Fortin, issued a manifesto entitled Pour un Québec lucide (For a Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec). The authors called into question some of the cherished shibboleths of the so-called Quebec model. See Inroads, Winter/Spring 2006, pp. 4–6, and Summer/Fall 2006, pp. 94–111.

17Fearful Symmetry, p. 176.