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Blame Canada! Blame Quebec!

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.

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About the Author

Brian Tanguay
Brian Tanguay is Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Among his main areas of interest are Quebec and Ontario politics.




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