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Thoughts on Quebec and Canada Summer 2005

Jim de Wilde

            The richness of Canadian political life is that one has to be able to operate in two different philosophies.   To succeed at being a Canadian is the best preparation for global citizenship.   Quebec and Canada are jazz and opera, two different languages that when fused successfully create something completely unique, something beyond jazz or opera, something that is, by definition, a 21st Century society.

            The problem is that we never start this discussion.   Instead, we are trapped in the past, like players in a bad science fiction movie, constantly bouncing against some space-time continuum where time has materialized as a physical prison.       Canada and Quebec look incredibly exciting as a story if one focuses on the future.    They look much less so from within this time-space prison we have constructed for ourselves. 

            All countries are prisoners of history to some degree or another.   Canadians are prisoners of history but we are also cultural amnesiacs, who forget the sacrifices and compromises already made to build a country like Canada.  We need to reconnect to the memories to realize the potential we have in the future. 

            There are few frameworks where Canadians and Quebecois can discuss their shared worlds.   People who genuinely understand both worlds tend to live in a bilingual enclave in Ottawa and seem further and further from the day-to-day life of citizens in Kamloops or Etobicoke.  In a world of new media, national leadership must define and articulate a vision of a future Canada based on its strengths, which start with the interaction of our founding heritages.     It cannot be done by relying on the pattern of elite-level accommodation that worked in the past.

             The void of misunderstanding which creates our political atmosphere explains why so much national decision-making seems to produce suboptimal outcomes. In turn, this process understandably alienates Canadians.

             All our debates are filtered through these lenses of unresolved past disputes, abstract issues of federalism and misunderstood arguments about how to pursue often shared objectives.  We could be having an interesting and useful debate about national capital market strategies and Canada's corporate governance laws in a  Sarbanes-Oxley  world  right now.  This could lead to a national discussion about how a differentiated Canadian legal and regulatory culture could give Canadian capital markets a competitive advantage in a global economy.  Instead, the discussion of national capital markets and nation-building  never reaches the public ear.  It is instead transformed into a discussion of "federalism" and   discussion how Quebec and Canada have developed  different economic models they have used to manage globalization.


              Why is  there so much misunderstanding, not about "ideas" or "values",  but about relatively non-contentious "facts"?  There are many possible explanations for this: (a)  the ahistorical nature of North American society which leaves people confused about why certain issues are on the agenda; (b)   a public education system that is too influenced in English-speaking Canada by U.S. trends and fails to explain the Canadian uniqueness to young and new Canadians; (c)  a lack of imagination about inventing a historical narrative the way Australia has; (d)  an electoral system which creates incentives to play one region against another;  (e) the natural difficulties of having distinct cultures learn to appreciate each other.   The result is the strange language within which we discuss Quebec in Toronto or Vancouver and the way we discuss English Canada in Montreal,  and now the  hard-wired    different intellectual assumptions that underlie debate in each culture.  Each of these explanations  addresses  a part of the puzzle.

              At the end of the day, however, the problem seems to be more simple.  We have never tried to develop a national vision based on our Canadian uniqueness: we are a country that only exists because of  a fusion of two very different cultures. 

Why do we have so many misconceptions about ourselves?

              The innovative   Health Minister of Quebec, Philippe Couillard,  discussed quite naturally this month    the inevitability and desirability of increasing the private sector involvement in health care.  This followed on a report for the Quebec government authored by Jacques Menard, the investment banker.   Couillard's comments were not particularly unusual.  He is a world-renowned neurosurgeon with a professional understanding of health policy issues.   In Quebec, the ideological view of health-care as something which differentiates us from the United States is non-existent.  Nor is the English-Canadian attachment to this forty-year old moment in history understood. .    Health care is a simply an essential service that is supposed to be delivered well.      

                Couillard's reaction of the Menard report did not make national headlines.   It  is  interesting   to speculate   how many English-speaking Canadians who have serious criticisms of the national health care system know of the Quebec government's more market-oriented approach to health-care.   The proponents of innovative  health-care in English-speaking Canada  have allies in Quebec, but many of them still believe that Quebec is a society where statism runs wild.  However these constant misperceptions came to be, they are in the way of a constructive national public policy debate.

                 Michaelle Jean's appointment as Governor-General raised a number of issues,.   The exciting realities of trilingual Montreal or tricultural Quebec have not previously had an impact on the national consciousness, so many people outside of Quebec did not know how to interpret the narrative of Michaelle Jean's life.    Some of the comments made about  her in English-Canadian media wanted one more time to apply   English-Canadian definitions of Canada to the vocabulary in Quebec.  "Is (s)he a federalist?"  is a confusing question.   If the 1995 referendum is the litmus test, half of Quebec and the large majority of francophone Quebec   has "doubts".    After learning the narrative of Lucien Bouchard's life,  after seeing that   a founder of the Bloc Quebecois like Jean Lapierre can become the Quebec political minister in a federalist government fourteen years later, after the post-referendum nostalgia for  the committed economically-oriented federalism of Robert Bourassa in the 1980s,  we have to replace the question   "is (s)he a federalist?" with the question "how open is (s)he to building Canada?" 

                   If the issues weren't important, the debate would have been like a great 18th Century opera bouffe, where muisunderstanding and confusion about identity move forward complex plots.    Once more, the conversation about what Quebec has become falls on deaf ears outside Quebec.  Similarly,  the conversation about what English Canada is becoming is inadequately  reported and debated in Quebec.   As a result, the discussion of how we fuse our national self-confidence and national identity into something greater than the sum of its parts is put off to another day.    Many thoughtful English-Canadians have come to view Quebec as an annoyance; many thoughtful Quebecois have come to see the national project and the national government as irrelevant.     

                  The splendid uniqueness of Canada is that it is a post-colonial country of shared jurisdictions, of vibrant nationalisms combining to build the first 20th Century society in 1867.   The nationalism of Scots, Irish, Quebecois created a new type of society which was pragmatic and "new world".    Canada was the first constitution designed to be a fusion country.  In the 19th Century, we were already in concept a 21st century society.   It is seldom understood just how innovative this design was compared to, say, Argentina and Australia who embarked on similar immigration-led strategies for economic growth.      The Canadians involved in designing the BNA Act knew that they were creating an experiment, an innovation in political theory, whose constitutional DNA would be relevant to many future societies.  

                   Without significant constitutional change, but with pragmatic politics, it survived the difference of "global visions" over the Boer War.   Without significant constitutional change, Canadians  created the conditions for the growth of western Canada, the immigration of entrepreneurial new Canadians to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in the early 20th Century and to all of Canada in the following hundred  years.    Without  constitutional change, Canadians created the conditions for  the development of a Pacific Coast economy in British Columbia.  These are  all extraordinary achievements of practical politics and policy innovation. 

                   By the 1970s, however, the stresses of a century-old federal structure were starting to show.   The requirements of modern economic growth required a more streamlined system of capital management, new forms of entrepreneurial finance and capital market strategies and a strategic capacity for governments to negotiate with multinational enterprises.  Provincial  governments had the  responsibilities for capital market regulation   and  provincial ownership of powerful electricity utilities created new powerful economic players with strategic objectives that went beyond boundaries.  In this policy environment,  many of the instruments for managing the modern economy were designed.   This applies to Manitoba Hydro, the Alberta Heritage Fund, and the Vancouver Stock Exchange as well  as to Quebec.

                    However, it was especially apparent in Quebec, where language, a provincial utility with the clout of Hydro Quebec  and a distinct legal culture made Quebec the architect of its competitiveness strategies.  It also applied particularly to Quebec after the 1960s negotiations on the Canada Pension Plan resulted in the opting-out of Quebec and the creation of the largest pool of institutional capital in Canada, the Caisse de depot  et placements (now known as the CDP).  It may now be becoming as apparent in western Canada, where the nature of the oil-based economy makes effective participation in national decision-making imperative, but in Quebec it was Quebec government instruments which managed globalization and set the policy framework for innovation.   With all of these many changes in Canadian society going on, the federal government was seen to be sometimes negative, often silent, and increasingly less relevant for key policy innovations.     

                     That was not the way most   the evolution of Quebec society was seen in much of English Canada.    Sovereignty was seen as an irrational nationalism, seldom understood in its context as an agenda for modern nation-building and the management of what came to be called globalization.   When economic players in Toronto complained about the structural weaknesses of the federal government, they were surprised to be told that they sound like a sovereigntist critique of federal economic policy-making.    In today's policy agenda,  the world of innovation in private health care, the development of trilingual or tricultural citizenship, and the world of a socially-liberal global competitiveness are taken for granted by many Québécois .  The Canadian political system pays a significant price for the way in which these policy innovations are not integrated into a national debate.

                       How do we start a new period in national Canadian politics, one which reminds Quebecois that thanks to their membership in the Canadian federation, they are an energy superpower, and one which reminds English-Canadians that the social liberalism which they think is a cornerstone of their identity is insured by the character of Quebec's political culture?

                        On a personal note,    I have argued for three decades   that the answer is    strategically simple yet immensely challenging to put into operation:  the federal government has to engage in relevant and innovative public policies and become the primary arena in which the management of Canada's role in the global economy is worked out.   Discussions of institutions and constitutions are anachronistic .      We have to be aware of how irrelevant much of our politics looks in an era of media saturation.     This requires that we look  at what governments do, their actual capacity, and not have painful conversations about jurisdictions .    Today, this is more difficult to achieve        because Quebec and English Canada have traveled down such different paths in the twenty-nine years since the first parti Quebecois government was elected.  

            If we quickly go back over the highlights of those twenty-nine years, perhaps the next generation of Canadian decision-makers can at least be freed from the Groundhog Day that has been Canadian politics in this period.

1976:    Part Quebecois is elected with Rene Lévesque.

1977-8    Bill 101 is passed in Quebec providing the policy instruments deemed necessary to protect and promote the use of the French language in Quebec.  A different kind of nationalist politics was inserted into this mix.   The issues of language and immigration became front-and-center of   modern Quebec society.  The language law and Cullen-Couture were in many ways, a celebration of the effectiveness of Canadian federalism, as the national constitution provided no obstacle to the democratic promotion of the distinctiveness of Quebec.  The Trudeau government and the first Parti Quebecois government negotiated the Cullen-Couture agreement on immigration.     Once again, a combination of pragmatic politics and policy innovation had deflected arguments for a sovereign Quebec.    One can argue about its implementation, its absence of a sunset clause, its current relevance and impact, but in context, Bill 101 helped manage significant changes in Quebec and Canadian society and produce among other things, the vibrant dynamism of trilingual Quebec.   

1980:    Parti Quebecois defeated decisively in the first referendum campaign, during which the federal government implied that a defeat of the sovereignty initiative would  lead to a renewed federalism "rebooting"  Quebec's rights and aspirations in a modern context.

1982:    The federal government introduces a constitutional package that contains the Charter of Rights and the patriation of the constitution from London, a symbolic piece of constitutional housekeeping.   The Charter is seen in much of English-speaking Canada as an attempt to make individual rights the focus of constitutional practice.  In  Quebec, whether one is pro or con the Charter on substantive grounds,  few people see it as addressing the concerns of protecting and promoting Quebec interests.  

1984-7:   There is an alignment of new governments in Ottawa, Quebec, Toronto, Victoria and Edmonton which gives rise to a constitutional process designed to close the chapter on the 1980 referendum campaign.     This leads to   the  so-called Meech Lake Accord, which attempted to reaffirm  the distinct society of Quebec (recognized in the 1867 Constitution through the vehicle of a separate civil law legal system) and is seen as   necessary housekeeping after the 1980 referendum and 1982 constitutional innovation.  It was intended as a way to  clear   the road to go forward.

1990:   The Meech Lake Accord is defeated in significant part  by arguments that allege that it  gives Quebec "new" powers rather than reaffirming old ones in light of 1982 and by those who explicitly want the Charter of Rights to be the cornerstone of constitutional thinking.  The only possible reason to reject it, most francophone Quebecois believed, was because Canada did not accept the obvious realities of an economically emergent Quebec, plugged into a U.S. market and an economy designed to grow with European investment in emerging sectors like pharmaceuticals.  The collapse of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 created many of the dynamics which continue in Canadian politics today. 

1994-5:   The Parti Quebecois is reelected in Quebec and calls the second Quebec referendum which results in a win by federalists with a 50-50 split.

                Instead of taking the path of a collaborative Canada-building exercise in the post-free trade association world,   Canadians and Quebecois embarked on journeys perhaps not to different destinations, but certainly with different means of transportation.  Quebecois sought to ensure that the instruments of global competitiveness and innovative social policy were well-designed in Quebec City  

                 Through the 1995 referendum and the rise of the Bloc Quebecois as a national force, the disconcerting reality is how little real dialogue between English-speaking Canadians and Quebecois has taken place. Quebecois feel like the victim of a suitor who keeps sending unwanted gifts.  English-Canadians end up feeling  that they are subsidizing Quebec, while many Quebecois believe that  the inefficiencies of fiscal federalism  are producing  costs for all participants.

                  There are, of course, profound differences of political culture between Quebec and English Canada which generate flash-points of misunderstanding that will always be there.        Quebec's social liberalism ignores the strains of social conservatism emerging in English speaking North America.  But English speaking opponents of that social conservatism fail to understand the power and originality of this social liberalism in Quebec.  For this reason, natural political allies in Canadian politics (e.g. proponents of  same-sex marriage) do not come together because the lens through which Canadian politics is seen    stops a coalition being built around the   values they share.     What are needed are common projects that join Quebecois and English-Canadians together around the goals, values and potential visions that they do share.     What is needed is a new lens through which Canadian politics can be viewed.

            Where do we go from here?  

                     The federal government has only one thing it can do to address "Quebec" as an abstract issue.  It can govern well and be on the side of innovative social and economic forces.    The relevance of the federal government is not to be found in some abstract theoretical constitutional language, but in the reality of  its relevance to everyday life. Its relevance was in doubt during the 1995 referendum campaign, and is still in question.    There is  no shortage of national projects that could   mobilize Canadians:  the development of global water purification and conservation strategy, an international project backing entrepreneurially-led growth in emerging markets,   the definition of a   21st Century society that designs a new Canadian identity  based on core Canadian values.    These are potential "national" projects in which Quebecois and British Columbians would find much common ground.  

                      As a starting point, Quebecois need to be reminded that the federal government is also seen to be out-of-touch   to many people with similar political and social values in Vancouver or Halifax.    The goal of      renewing national institutions to deal with common purposes and innovative agendas is not something that should   be done because it is good for Quebec.  It should be done because it is good for Canada, and in doing that which is good for Canada, we re-engage Quebec and remove the argument that sovereignty is the default position, made necessary by an underperforming federal system.  

                        The strongest arguments for Canada in Quebec are positive and focus on realizing our  unlimited collective potential:  the chance to be an energy superpower, the chance to frame the global arguments about energy production and environmentally sustainable energy consumption;  the chance for Canada to define the way societies move beyond race and ethnicity as the definition of a complex identity in the modern world;  the chance for Canada to use Quebec innovations in the commercialization of technology and the development of social policy to redefine the scope and role of government in an internet age.   Quebecois are among the most globally-oriented people on the planet, by lifestyle, by travel habits, by philosophy.  The opportunity to go beyond parochialisms is hard-wired into the Quebec identity.  If   Canada is a better vehicle for this journey, then Canada is the automatic choice.  Right now,  Quebecois consistently vote for a federal political party that promises it will not be in power and   will deliver no benefits.  That is proof that pork barrel federalism no longer has any chance of success in the 21st Century.

                          Strong national leadership on policy issues can render  the question of sovereignty unnecessary.   When national politics is about important themes, the sovereignty project will no longer have credibility.  The answer to Quebec-Canada issues in 2005 is the same as it was in 1975:  do significant things   in Ottawa and do them well.  Define Canada as an energy superpower planning for sustainable clean growth.  Define Canada as a socially liberal society with an effective multiculturalism in a world plagued by sectarianism.  Define Canada as an innovator in health-care rather than a country that clings to a discredited bureaucratic model.     This will speak to the next generation of Quebecois, who know that the sovereignty model is as outdated as the federalist options that have been presented since 1990.