A couple of years ago Maclean’s magazine ran a cover story that labelled Quebec the most corrupt province in Canada. The cover art depicted the beloved Bonhomme Carnaval lugging a briefcase overflowing with cash, leaving a trail of dollar bills in his wake. Reaction to the story was widespread and furious, eventually leading all parties in the House of Commons to pass a motion expressing “profound sadness” at the magazine’s Quebec-bashing.1 But in light of the past months of lurid testimony before Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission about corruption and collusion practices, in Montreal especially, perhaps we need to acknowledge that Martin Patriquin, the author of the article, got more right than his outraged critics.

Gobsmacked viewers of the Charbonneau Commission’s proceedings have heard witnesses testify to a panoply of patronage techniques reminiscent of the bad old days when Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale ruled the province like a personal fiefdom. We heard of secret meetings during which bagmen shovelled wads of cash into their socks for safekeeping; a safe belonging to the city’s governing political party stuffed so full of cash that its door wouldn’t close; a fundraiser for that same governing party who earned the nickname of “Mr. Three Per Cent” for his habit of skimming a portion of municipal contracts from businesses that won bids to do city work; a construction boss who allegedly threatened to bury a city official in one of his sidewalks, for which he was given the moniker “Mr. Sidewalk”; construction and engineering firms that routinely showered city and provincial officials with gifts, including concert tickets (to see Céline Dion!) and access to corporate boxes at Habs games.

Recent public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Quebecers believe that their province is corrupt. At the same time, anywhere from half to two thirds of respondents also feel that the other provinces are no different – and certainly no better – than Quebec.2 The empirical evidence, what there is of it, suggests that this is wishful thinking on the part of many Quebecers. It is certainly true that unholy alliances between developers and city politicians are endemic across the country. One veteran observer of city politics in Winnipeg and other cities in English Canada speaks of a “recurring pattern, in cities across the country, of land deals and development agreements that raise questions too serious to be dismissed, but that fall short of providing solid evidence of wrongdoing.”3

To take one example: A recent exhaustive study of the funding of candidates in elections in ten municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area found that real estate developers were “by far the most important financier of winning candidates’ campaigns.” The author conducted an in-depth case study of decision-making by Vaughan city council, which demonstrated that councillors “frequently vote on development proposals submitted by those who financed their campaigns.”4 Such practices undoubtedly lead to subversion of the democratic process and to the silencing of a wide range of citizen voices at the municipal level in Canada. However, it does not compare to the Duplessis-style corruption we are hearing about in Montreal. What distinguishes Montreal from other big cities is just how organized the corruption has been, with a highly formalized system of kickbacks from construction firms to the coffers of municipal political parties and leaders.

The question then becomes: Why do we find systemic corruption in municipal politics in Montreal? We will not get very far if we simply ascribe the institutionalized political corruption unearthed by the Charbonneau Commission to a character flaw in Quebecers or to some component of their political DNA. This is the kind of pseudo-explanation that will justifiably get Quebecers and the House of Commons riled up. Instead, we need to focus on a number of factors, including the peculiarities of the construction industry in Quebec – a longstanding problem, as the Cliche Commission confirmed in the mid-1970s – and the distinctive morphology of organized crime in Montreal.

We also need to push even further into sensitive territory, as Patriquin himself did in his 2010 Maclean’s article, and ask whether the endless debate over sovereignty might have played some role in encouraging a particularly lax attitude among political elites to the question of party financing. When political actors are convinced that the very survival of their country is tied to the electoral success of their party, might they not be inclined to overlook how that party finances itself or spends its funds? Think of the reaction of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to the sponsorship scandal: “Perhaps there were a few million dollars that might have been stolen in the process, but how many millions and millions of dollars have we saved because we have reestablished the stability of Canada by keeping it a united country?”5

Revelations before the Charbonneau Commission suggest that a disturbing number of politicians at every level of government in Quebec have adopted a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” attitude toward violations of party finance regulations, which are among the strictest in the country in limiting contributions by individuals and corporations.

In reaction to the revelations, the current Parti Québécois government has tightened party finance regulations even further, restricting the amount individuals can give to political parties to a maximum of $100 per annum (and an additional $100 during an election year). This will create even greater incentives for those seeking government contracts to find clandestine ways of getting money to politicians. Instead, what is needed is a system of transparency of public accounts posted on the Internet, about whose money is going where, and who is making the decision, whenever government at any level spends money.

Rather than complaining that their province is being unfairly singled out on the issue of political corruption, Quebecers should demand that party elites devise practical solutions to put an end to this scourge. Then Quebec might once again become a model of what to do rather than of what not to do when it comes to party finance.

Continue reading “The stench of corruption”

Another new party is poised to break the mould of Quebec politics – or is it?

Even before it became an official party on November 14, 2011, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) had vaulted to the top of public opinion polls in Quebec. Despite its unfortunate-sounding acronym (pronounced “cack,” with its activists designated in the media as “caquistes”), a program that was still very much a work in progress and a leader pundits characterized as less than charismatic, more than a third of voters indicated that they would vote for the new party.

CAQ leader François Legault himself was – along with Pierre Curzi, who until his noisy resignation from the Parti Québécois caucus in June 2011 had been the PQ’s language critic (and a well-known actor who had starred in Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire and many other films) – the most popular political figure in the province. Nearly half (49 per cent) of the respondents had favourable opinions of Legault, compared to 33 per cent for PQ leader Pauline Marois and 28 per cent for Liberal Premier Jean Charest.1 Whatever reservations voters might have had about Legault, they seemed more than happy to have him as the next Quebec premier.

But does the new outfit have legs? In 2007, Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) was poised to break the mould of Quebec politics by eclipsing the Parti Québécois, just as the PQ itself had displaced the Union Nationale during the 1970s. But it was not to be: the mainstream parties managed to beat back the challenge from the newcomer. Will history repeat itself? Recent polls show a marked dropoff in support for the CAQ, and with Pauline Marois having weathered a debilitating schism within her party’s ranks, Legault’s party – which swallowed up what was left of the ADQ early in 2012 – risks meeting the same fate. But the Quebec electorate’s astonishing volatility could still propel the CAQ to major party status. These are the same voters, after all, who massively rejected the Bloc Québécois in the 2011 federal election and generated an “orange wave” of support for Jack Layton, carrying the NDP from one seat in Quebec all the way to Official Opposition status in the House of Commons.

Definitive answers to these questions, of course, elude anyone without access to a reliable crystal ball. But the ADQ’s odd up-and-down-and-up-and-down trajectory should teach us to be cautious before predicting party realignment in Quebec in the coming election, which must be held by December 2013. Like the ADQ, Legault’s CAQ has a powerful trump card in its appeal to Quebec’s disgruntled francophone voters: its promise to shelve the divisive and seemingly neverending debate over Quebec’s constitutional future in favour of concentrating on the province’s intractable economic and social problems.

At the same time, the CAQ seems better positioned than the ADQ ever was to make the necessary electoral inroads into the suburban areas surrounding Montreal. Cofounded by a sovereigntist businessman-technocrat-politician (Legault) and a federalist entrepreneur with strong connections to the Liberal Party (Charles Sirois), the CAQ could conceivably bleed off middle-class, suburban francophone voters from the PQ, especially those unhappy with the quality of the public services they are receiving in exchange for their crushing tax burden. This would allow Legault to graft a suburban metropolitan constituency onto the ADQ’s old fortress in south-central Quebec, and provide his new party with a formidable electoral base of support to rival those of the two mainstream parties. Nonetheless, Quebec’s established parties retain highly effective weapons in their electoral arsenals.

Before addressing the CAQ’s electoral prospects, however, we should know something about where the party came from and just what it is advocating to jolt Quebec out of its quiet complacency and mediocrity.

From the Lucides to the CAQ

On June 25, 2009, François Legault resigned as PQ member of the National Assembly for the riding of Rousseau north of Montreal. An accountant by training, Legault had been one of the cofounders of Air Transat in 1986 and a member of the management boards of well-known Quebec corporations such as Provigo, Culinar and Sico. First elected in 1998, Legault held senior cabinet portfolios – Industry, Health, and Education – in the PQ governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. He was also considered a contender for the leadership of the party, but never threw his hat into the ring. Media observers viewed Legault as a competent politician who had managed to avoid any spectacular gaffes during his tenure in government.

In remarks made at the time of his resignation, Legault lamented that he was quitting politics with a sense of foreboding for his province: “I feel that Quebec has embarked on a quiet decline, and, unfortunately, has too often done so with resignation and indifference.” Pervasive cynicism and distrust of the political class, Legault argued, had sapped the energies and imaginations of voters and activists alike. At such a time, ambitious political projects, such as sovereignty or a renewal of Canadian federalism, were virtually impossible to achieve. Moreover, Quebec’s mainstream political parties were paralyzed in the face of the three biggest challenges facing Quebecers: the widening gap in wealth between Quebec and the rest of North America, the growing inefficiency of the province’s health and education systems, and the crisis of public finances in the province.2

Legault’s diagnosis of Quebec’s political and economic ills echoed that found in the manifesto Pour un Québec lucide (For a Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec), published on October 19, 2005 (see Inroads, Winter/Spring and Summer/Fall 2006). Not long after Legault’s resignation, rumours began to circulate that he and Joseph Facal, a key author of the manifesto and former colleague in the Bouchard and Landry cabinets, were discussing the possibility of founding a new party.

In the spring and summer of 2010 it certainly appeared that there was sufficient room in political space for an organization that would represent the interests of the large swath of voters fed up with the sterile and predictable “debate” between sovereigntists and federalists. Moreover, the ADQ appeared to be locked in a death spiral. Mario Dumont’s successor as party leader, Gilles Taillon, had resigned in November 2009, barely a month into his tenure, as allegations of financial mismanagement and other skullduggery were being slung about and the ADQ was sitting at about 10 per cent in most opinion polls.

Legault’s involvement in the new party meant that it would likely have some appeal to the francophone business community. Facal, for his part, would have helped provide intellectual bona fides for the party: holder of a doctorate in sociology from the Sorbonne, he has authored or coauthored several books and is a prolific blogger and newspaper columnist. While still a member of the PQ cabinet, Facal had actively sought to nudge the party in a more pragmatic direction on economic policy, eliciting the ire of its vocal left wing.

Ultimately, Facal decided against joining Legault as cofounder of a third force in Quebec politics. In his blog, Facal stated somewhat cryptically that while he and Legault shared similar diagnoses of Quebec’s political situation, they did not agree on the steps needed to remedy things or on the prioritizing of the tasks to be accomplished.3 Legault did manage to find another partner, however, in the person of Charles Sirois, Chair of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and past CEO of Bell Mobile Communications and Teleglobe. With his strong connections to the Liberal Party, and his reluctance to play a prominent public role in the CAQ (he will not run in an election), Sirois, in the words of one journalist, plays the federalist Robin to Legault’s sovereigntist Batman.4

In February 2011, Legault and Sirois formed the Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec and over the next six months issued a series of policy pronouncements. The first of these dealt with education, highlighting the crucial importance that Legault and Sirois place on the improvement of Quebec’s “human capital” as the surest route to sustainable economic development. This was followed by consultation documents on the health care system, the economy and the promotion of the French language, all of which were combined in an “Action Plan” released on November 14, 2011, when the CAQ was recognized as an official party.5

The most controversial proposal was to raise public school teachers’ salaries in return for reduced job security, combined with abolition of local school boards to reduce bureaucratic costs (an idea previously floated by the ADQ and downplayed after the plan ran into stiff opposition during an election campaign). Other proposals included:

  • tuition hikes for postsecondary education, coupled with better student loans and a repayment scheme linked to postgraduation income;
  • new methods of financing both doctors and hospitals to encourage greater efficiency;
  • abolition of regional health agencies, again to lower the costs of bureaucracy;
  • a greater role for the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement in the financing of Quebec-based enterprises;
  • a thorough “housecleaning” in public life to deal with widespread corruption in the tendering of government contracts, especially in the construction sector;
  • the creation of a commissioner of public integrity, who would be an officer of the National Assembly endowed with sweeping powers to deal with corruption, collusion and ethical breaches in any form.

Interestingly, the CAQ devoted considerable space in its Action Plan to outlining measures to defend and promote the French language, a signal that it does not intend to cede this key electoral issue to the PQ even if it means ceding the anglophones to the Liberals. Proclaiming that “Quebec needs to be sovereign in matters of language because of its objective reality in North America,” and expressing concern over the “deteriorating” situation of French in the greater Montreal area, the CAQ proposes to increase resources devoted to the integration of immigrants. It also wants to limit the number of immigrants to the province to 45,000 for two years – in 2010, the province admitted just under 54,000 immigrants6 – to allow the new policies for linguistic integration to be implemented. As well, the CAQ pledges to outlaw the use of so-called écoles-passerelles (“bridging schools”), the unsubsidized, private English-language schools that some immigrant families have used in the past to circumvent the provisions in the Charter of the French Language and gain access for their children to the public English-language school system. If necessary, the CAQ would invoke the notwithstanding clause in the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms to pass such legislation.

It is true that these policies did not represent a radical departure from measures that had been proposed by the ADQ. Nonetheless, the CAQ benefited tremendously from its air of “newness” and its apparent willingness to tell it like it is, and thus especially from its promise to put the question of another referendum on the back burner for the foreseeable future. Legault and his allies were waiting for another wave of voter discontent, similar to the “orange wave” that had helped catapult Jack Layton and the NDP to staggering success in the federal election of May 2011. And for a brief time, it appeared as though they might indeed catch such a wave.

The unravelling of Quebec’s party system

In its first three months of official existence, the CAQ was by far the most popular party in opinion surveys, reaching a high of 37 per cent support among decided voters in December 2011.7 On December 19, two former Péquistes, Benoit Charette and Daniel Ratthé, and two former Adéquistes, Éric Caire and Marc Picard, announced that they were joining the CAQ. All four had previously left their parties to sit in the Assembly as independents. In early January, another PQ defector, François Rebello, joined the CAQ. At the time, Rebello – a former student leader with a higher public profile than any of the other newly minted CAQ members – publicly proclaimed his continuing support for Quebec sovereignty, though “the current stakes aren’t about the holding of a referendum, but about choosing the best government led by the best premier.”8 Rebello’s outspokenness has been something of a thorn in Legault’s side.

Negotiations between ADQ Leader Gérard Deltell and Legault culminated in a decision to merge the two organizations. This was ratified by 70 per cent of the 1,373 ADQ members who participated in a partywide vote on the proposal in January 2012. Thus the four remaining ADQ MNAs joined the CAQ grouping in the National Assembly. Formally, it was not a caucus: the President of the Assembly ruled that the CAQ did not qualify as an official party, having only nine sitting members as opposed to the normally required twelve. Neither the Liberals nor the PQ were inclined to make an exception for the CAQ, forcing the nine MNAs to sit as independents and depriving the CAQ of substantial public funds for research expenses.

The early strength of the CAQ was largely the product of the tribulations of its two main competitors. By the end of 2011, Jean Charest’s Liberal government had become one of the most unpopular in Quebec history. Roughly three quarters of respondents in current surveys indicate that they believe the government is on the wrong track, and this level of dissatisfaction has not changed much over the past couple of years. Charest himself is the least popular government leader in the entire country. In power since 2003, the Liberals under Charest have, on balance, a thinner and less impressive record of legislative accomplishment than any other Quebec government since the Quiet Revolution. Charest’s government has been dogged for years by perceptions of scandal and corruption. A case in point was Families Minister Tony Tomassi, who was expelled from caucus in May 2010 amid allegations that he had orchestrated a financial kickback scheme in the awarding of public daycare contracts.9

The Charest government for many months resisted calls for a public inquiry into the role of organized crime in construction contracts, only to finally cave in and establish an inquiry led by Quebec Superior Court justice France Charbonneau. Initially, however, Charest deprived this inquiry of the full powers to subpoena witnesses or grant them immunity. Only after a public outcry did Charest finally relent on this issue, though he appears to be trying to buy time so that the inquiry will not release any damning evidence until after the next provincial election. Small wonder, then, that a sizable majority of Quebecers are convinced that their province is corrupt.10 Yet Charest apparently believes he can win a fourth consecutive mandate and go into the record books with Maurice Duplessis for longevity.

As for the Parti Québécois, it has been on the verge of imploding for some time, though Pauline Marois has recently appeared to right the ship and the party has reestablished itself as the front-runner in public opinion polls. The party’s travails date back to the spring of 2011. Desperate for any gimmick that might reenergize the sovereigntist rank-and-file, Marois endorsed a controversial private member’s bill introduced in the National Assembly in May 2011 by Quebec City PQ MNA Agnès Maltais. The proposed legislation, Bill 204, was designed to shield the city’s municipal government from possible lawsuits over the deal it had struck with media conglomerate Quebecor’s boss Pierre Karl Péladeau to manage a proposed hockey arena to be built with public funds. The goal was to lure a National Hockey League franchise to Quebec City and relive le bon vieux temps of the Battle of Quebec, with the “federalist” Montreal Canadiens taking on their “nationalist” archrivals, the Quebec Nordiques, in annual contests for hockey and cultural supremacy.

Marois tried to whip the vote on Bill 204, making it a matter of principle to support legislation that would, in effect, help bolster the Péladeau empire’s bottom line. This provided the pretext for four PQ MNAs – Pierre Curzi; longtime sovereigntist standard-bearer Louise Beaudoin; Lisette Lapointe, wife of Jacques Parizeau; and Jean-Martin Aussant, the party’s finance critic – to resign from caucus. By the end of the year, eight MNAs had either resigned from the PQ caucus or been expelled by Marois. In almost every case, the dissidents pointed to more important underlying causes for their unhappiness. They singled out Marois’s authoritarian style of leadership as well as her softness on the PQ’s raison d’être, the commitment to hold a third referendum on sovereignty should the party win power again.

Currently, the PQ finds itself outflanked by two pur-et-dur sovereigntist splinter organizations: Québec-Solidaire, the resolutely socialist and indépendantiste party whose leader, the very popular Amir Khadir, sits in the National Assembly; and the Nouveau Mouvement pour le Québec, founded by journalist Jocelyn Desjardins and associated with the Parizeau faction of the PQ. But with the CAQ fading, some moderate PQ supporters, it would appear, have decided to return to the fold.

An enormously unpopular incumbent government and a rival in ideological disarray: these are significant factors favouring the electoral breakthrough of the CAQ. The fact that the two major parties in Quebec keep forcing political discourse into the Manichaean sovereignty-versus-renewed-federalism mould, in spite of the pervasive alienation from the constitutional question among Quebec’s voters, ought to provide an electoral fillip to the newly formed CAQ. So too should the deep-seated unhappiness of Quebec’s voters.

Table 1 contains provincial data from the 2011 Canadian Election Study11 on satisfaction with the way democracy works in Canada. Quebec sticks out in the table, with far lower levels of satisfaction than any of the other provinces. Barely half (50.6 per cent) of Quebec francophones indicate that they are satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada, as compared with 62.4 of their nonfrancophone Quebec counterparts. This could provide a nontraditional party like the CAQ with a pool of alienated francophone voters to mobilize at election time, on the theory that voters unhappy with the state of democracy are more likely to look for partisan alternatives outside the mainstream. Yet there are obstacles to a dramatic breakthrough for the CAQ in the next provincial election, as evidenced by its failure to attract sufficient suitable candidates. The major parties have at their disposal tactical arsenals that might help them beat back the challenge from Legault’s upstart party.

The PQ bounces back?

The ADQ experience of twice being on the cusp of a major breakthrough, only to fall back, is instructive. In the fall of 2002, support for the ADQ suddenly spiked to 35–40 per cent, following surprising byelection wins in four ridings formerly held by the PQ. Three of the four successful ADQ candidates were quite young, like party leader Mario Dumont himself, fuelling the impression that a generational shift in Quebec politics might be in the offing. Yet in the April 2003 election the party won only four seats with 18 per cent of the vote, a victim of the punishment our electoral system inflicts on a third party.

But the decline from 35–40 to 18 per cent was due to another kind of punishment facing the upstart: as the popularity of the ADQ increased, so too did scrutiny of its program. Legault has already encountered some rough waters generated by his party’s proposals to reopen existing collective agreements with teachers and doctors, if need be, or to take on a constitutional challenge to its plan to abolish school boards, proposals which came under heavy scrutiny. This helps explain why, as the election approaches, support has declined, much as it did for the ADQ in 2003: from January to early April 2012, support for the CAQ declined from 33 to 22 per cent.

The second ADQ “moment,” when it appeared to be poised to eclipse the PQ, came about when Dumont’s forces came in second in the 2007 provincial election. And yet, the ADQ crashed back to earth within a year of its near-victory, winning only seven seats on 16 per cent of the vote in December 2008. This was due to the inexperience of the ADQ caucus, but also to strategic policy responses by the Liberals and, especially, the PQ, to take “ownership” of the issue of reasonable accommodation of immigrants.12 The result was that the ADQ was no longer the preeminent voice of francophones on cultural issues and the defender of the Quebec identity.

Something very similar is likely to be at work in the next Quebec election. For the past few years PQ leaders have been stoking linguistic fears in the province, claiming that the very survival of the French language in Montreal is in danger. In electoral terms, this is une stratégie payante, even if it frays relations between the communities and incites scapegoating of immigrants and anglophones – which ought to be at odds with a sovereignist project based on “civic” rather than ethnic nationalism. As table 2 shows, the perception that the French language is threatened correlates strongly with support for sovereignty: almost 62 per cent of those who so believe are favourable to sovereignty, while just under 13 per cent of those who do not see a threat support it. PQ leaders will actively play up the threat in the months leading up to the next election.

One indication came in the latest hysteria to erupt in Quebec – fuelled by Mario Dumont himself on his television program – over the sale of halal meat. The PQ’s agriculture critic, André Simard, said that halal slaughter “collides head-on with Quebec values” and is “less humane than standard industry practices.” For his part, Legault insisted that halal products needed to be clearly labelled: “We are in Quebec and must be an exception.”13 If such issues take centre stage in the upcoming election, the PQ will be able to outflank its new rival on the terrain of Quebec identity and could very well keep the CAQ to no more than 20 per cent. This is little better than the level of support at which the ADQ under Gérard Deltell was tracking just prior to its merger with Legault’s party.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the CAQ’s breakthrough, however, is the fact that its message to voters is a variation on President Obama’s “eat your peas.” It is proposing what amounts to a dose of fiscal realism to voters who have shown little willingness to wean themselves from the magical thinking proffered by the mainstream parties.

Plus ça change …

Continue reading “Coalition Avenir Québec”

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.

Continue reading “Blame Canada! Blame Quebec!”