Will Quebec Blackmail Canada Again?

Will Quebec Blackmail Canada Again?

The province's new premier must contend with staggering debt, divided government, an educational crisis and a violent tragedy.

Pauline Marois, premier-elect of QuebecPauline Marois, the premier-elect of Quebec, videotaped a message to the Canadian province on its national holiday last summer ending with a wide-eyed recitation of poet Felix LeClerc's lyrics; "Les fruits sont mûrs dans les vergers de mon pays" (“the fruits are ripe in the orchards of my country”). It seems the leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) will have to wait to fill her basket.

Marois’s victory speech on the evening of September 4 was not quite the celebration she had hoped for. Quebec's first woman premier-elect presented herself in a decidedly consolatory guise, even switching to English to inform anglophones (over booing from the audience) that "your rights will be protected, and I want all of us to work together to shape our common future." This was surprising, given that Ms. Marois's campaign had refused to grant interviews to the English media.

The night ended in tragedy. As she was proclaiming her “firm conviction that Quebec needs to become a sovereign country,” Ms. Marois was rushed off of the stage of the Montreal nightclub where the PQ election celebration was taking place. Shots were fired outside, leaving one person in critical condition and another dead. The shooter, anglophone businessman Richard Bain, was heard shouting "the English are waking up" in French after being taken into custody by the Montreal police. The next day, in a public letter to Le Devoir, the major Quebec newspaper, one public figure in Quebec dubiously connected the attack to the "diabolisation of sovereigntists" and allegations of xenophobia in the "anglophone media."

Marois, a trenchant separatist and career politician whom Conrad Black described this week as a "desperately unimpressive . . . bag-lady" will lead a weak minority government. Her party won a slim plurality—just 0.2 percent more of the popular vote than the outgoing federalist, Liberal Party of Quebec. The Coalition D'Avenir de Quebec, a Right-of-Center party proposing to table the secession question for ten years, formed about eight months prior by ex-PQ minister Francois Legault, also gained nineteen seats. This means not only that any question of secession or referendum is out for the time being but also that the other legislative proposals she used to bolster her base—proposing a secular Quebec Charter, restricting the display of non-Christian symbols in public places, preventing non-anglos from attending English colleges, and even ordering businesses with ten or more employees to operate in French—will likely shrivel up.

Most observers have suggested that the mixed-bag election results should be interpreted as a rejection of the nine-year Liberal Party government rather than an endorsement of separatism. The outgoing premier, Jean Charest, called the election in the doldrums of summer, a few weeks prior to the resumption of the Charbonneau Commission—a panel tasked with investigating the links between organized crime, campaign financing and construction industry contracts—probably to force voters to polls before too much dirty laundry could be aired.

Marois's first move as premier was to cancel the proposed tuition-fees increase that triggered a seemingly unending “Maple Spring” (and summer) of student protests (drawing up to two hundred thousand demonstrators), which disrupted just about every aspect of life in Montreal and saw frequent clashes with police. Marois herself joined the self-declared “casseroles” who marched the streets of Montreal in the summer, banging on pots and pans against Bill 78. This emergency legislation was passed in desperation by Charest in an attempt to control the student protests that were becoming so unwieldy as to jeopardize the summer tourist season.

The leader of the Federation of University Students of Quebec, Martine Desjardins, anticlimactically declared the tuition crisis "resolved" following Marois's announcement that she would cancel the tuition-fee increase by cabinet decree, which circumvents the need for consensus from opposition parties. Cancelling the tuition increase will result in the loss of $332 million Canadian dollars of revenue for colleges and universities over seven years. Marois has pledged to hold a forum on financing education in Quebec. But barring tuition increases, it seems likely that the next option involves getting more federal cash.

Also in question is the future of Quebec's northern mines. Plan Nord, a program developed by the Liberal government for mine development, garnered $6 billion in investment under the outgoing Liberal government, much of which will now be thrown into jeopardy by an unstable minority government. Moreover, the PQ has proposed continuing the program under a "redo" involving environmental reviews and legislating that all mineral processing must occur within the province.

Quebec is Canada's most indebted province, with a gross debt of $184 billion dollars, 55.5 percent of its GDP. The province has a famously bloated bureaucracy, $7-a-day daycare (which Marois herself created in 1997) and the lowest tuition fees in Canada. In order to sustain these programs, Marois has complainedloudly about Quebec's transfer payments to the federal government and will surely demand an increase in equalization payments (funded in large part by the rich Western oil sands) back into Quebec. Although by some calculations Quebec already has received about $2.50 back from the feds for every $1 paid to Ottawa. The province already receives $8 billion of the $14 billion paid to six poorer provinces.

Marois has said that in the days following the election, one of the first items on her agenda is a call to the prime minister, Stephen Harper, to take up these demands. The PQ sees this pestering as win-win: If Ottawa capitulates, Quebec gets more cash and power. But if they stonewall, it's more proof that the federal arrangement doesn't work.

Harper's office issued an ambivalent note to congratulate Marois upon her election, noting that "Quebeckers chose to elect a minority government" and that "We do not believe that Quebeckers wish to revive the old constitutional arguments of the past." But given Marois's weak mandate, the favored and usually effective Quebec strategy—using threats of separation to leverage goodies from the federal government—will countenance little more than a polite “no.”

Joanna Baron is a graduate of McGill University and St. John's College. She is currently clerking at the Court of Appeal for Ontario in Toronto.

Image: Bouchecl