(March 13, 2014) If Quebec becomes a have-province obliged to subsidize English Canada, Quebecers will vote for independence.
By Lawrence Solomon, published by the National Post on March 13, 2014
Quebecers aren’t like the rest of us and, as they have many times made clear, they don’t want to be like the rest of us. At a time of their choosing, likely to their benefit and to Canada’s loss, Quebec will leave.
Quebec almost did vote to leave in 1995 — more than 49% cast a vote for the “Yes” side — a remarkably close outcome considering that Quebec and Canada in 1995 were then coming out of a recession, suffering from high unemployment and running massive government deficits. When times are tough, people cling to the little they have. That almost half the populace — and fully 60% of francophones — was willing to cast its fate to the wind in such anxious times demonstrates Quebecers’ enduring desire to be “maîtres chez nous,” masters in their own house.
Since 1995, the ever-present cultural differences between Quebec and the Rest of Canada have, if anything, grown, as Quebecers’ embrace of their Charter of Values startlingly demonstrates. In a way, Quebec has already left in all but name — Canada’s parliament now recognizes Quebecers as “a nation within a united Canada” and the province has negotiated for itself so many distinct powers and privileges that, according to McGill Law Professor Daniel Weinstock, the result has been the “gradual de-Canadianization of Quebec.”
Because the Supreme Court of Canada has validated the right of Quebec to formally leave Canada following a clear referendum victory, the only important remaining factor deterring a majority from voting to leave Canada is the same factor that in 1995 tipped the balance in favour of staying — the economic consequences of leaving.
Today, the economics argue for staying. For one thing, our federal governments over the past 20 years have proven themselves to be among the world’s best at running economies, certainly faring better than Quebec’s governments have fared. For another, Quebec is a recipient of almost $8-billion a year in equalization payments. Quebecers today would see a departure from Canada as both costly and risky when the gains to be had from a more formal, de jure rather than de facto sovereignty would be largely symbolic.
Tomorrow, the economics could change. It is easy to imagine a federal government once again bereft of fiscal discipline, say if a free-spending Justin Trudeau came to power and hobbled the Canadian economy, much as Barack Obama did for the U.S. It is also easy to imagine Quebec’s economic fortunes turning. Newfoundland and Saskatchewan — over many decades have-not provinces — both became have provinces in the last decade through their resource wealth. Quebec, Canada’s largest province with an area almost half-again that of Ontario, has immense untapped natural resource potential able to propel it, too, to have-province status.
For this reason, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois last month entered the petroleum fracking business through two joint ventures to develop oil and gas on Anticosti Island, one of several hydrocarbon-rich regions that developers have been eyeing. The province pegs its potential gains in profits, royalties, and taxes at $45-billion over the next 30 years, a sum that could be wide of the mark in either direction — other jurisdictions have consistently underestimated the potential for both shale oil and shale gas. In several U.S. states, private landowners alone, for shale gas alone, are today reaping royalties at a comparable or greater clip than Quebec anticipates in future from both oil and gas in several revenues streams.
Even modest gas production could be a game changer, by spurring a conversion of electric heating — now used wastefully in Quebec — to gas heating, thus freeing up Quebec’s enormous potential for electricity exports. But Quebec shouldn’t need to produce its own gas to better capitalize on its existing hydropower. According to a 2009 study by the Montreal Economic Institute, the province is losing more than $10-billion a year merely through uneconomic uses of its electricity system — an amount that exceeds the entire equalization grant that Quebec receives. Over 30 years, that $10-billion-plus a year would amount to almost seven times the monies projected from oil and gas.
If Quebec became a have province, whether by fully capitalizing on its hydropower or by landing a windfall through its oil and gas or other resources, the stage would be set for a successful referendum, all the more so if the federal government was seen as incompetent at managing the Canadian economy. For good measure, separatists would also revive old grievances to remind Quebecers of historic injustices, made all the more vivid, we can be certain, by yahoos in English Canada who could be counted on to stomp on the Quebec flag and otherwise mobilize the Yes vote.
Quebecers in this ascendant Quebec would then ask themselves, “do we want to make equalization payments to the English, with whom we thankfully have nothing in common, or do we want to be fully independent masters in our own house.” The question answers itself.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.