Politics

Kelly McParland: Can Quebec be a ‘confident’ nation with $13 billion a year in equalization payments?

The fundamental basis of the two independence referenda was that the province didn’t need the rest of Canada in order to grow and prosper

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The general perception of the recent referendum on equalization is that it was all about Alberta and its resentment over contributing more to the program than it receives in return. But what it was really about was Quebec.

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The wording of the question put to voters was   bland enough (“Should Section 36(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 — Parliament and the Government of Canada’s commitment to the principle of making equalization payments — be removed from the Constitution?”), but the underlying sentiment was stronger. If not for the $13 billion in annual payments that are directed to Quebec out of a pot of $21 billion, would Alberta be as eager to demand a change?

Quebec represents about 22 per cent of Canada’s population but gets 61 per cent of the equalization pot. As is often pointed out, it is not the biggest recipient on a per capita basis — Manitoba and three Atlantic provinces are ahead of it. But if Quebec was prosperous enough to be eliminated from the program, and the remaining pool of $8 billion was distributed to the four remaining “have-not” provinces, would equalization get nearly as much attention as it does among people looking for something to beef about?

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Probably not, though the ability of people to find things to resent should never be underestimated. Quebecers can counter, quite justifiably, that their annual payment is calculated by a formula devised by Ottawa. It’s hardly their fault if the numbers add up in their favour.

That might succeed in tempering the argument, except for one thing: in the 64 years since the formal introduction of the current program, Canada’s only majority French-speaking province has managed to position itself as a have-not province that needs annual equalization payments to support programs equal to those in richer provinces, while simultaneously asserting it is a sophisticated, modern society deserving of the status of nationhood that is capable of going it alone if need be.  

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The fundamental basis of the two independence referenda was that Quebec didn’t need the rest of Canada in order to grow and prosper. Between 1980 and 1995, when the votes were held, Canadians were treated to ongoing campaigns aimed at separating the province from English Canada.

Leaders of the crusade proclaimed again and again that Quebec was a mature society with its own unique culture, blessed with the talent and energy to go it alone. It came very close to winning the 1995 vote, foiled by barely a single percentage point. Since then, the independence fervour has cooled somewhat, but efforts to differentiate itself from the rest of the herd have hardly lessened.

In 2006, the House of Commons responded to ongoing pressure by adopting a motion recognizing “that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” The choice of “Québécois” over “Quebec” was a deliberate move to keep recognition limited to cultural aspects. Nine years later, the province identified recognition of its “specificity” as “one of Quebec’s major recurrent demands,” adding that “only constitutional entrenchment would ensure the sustainability of the desired legal consequences.”

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Over the past year, both of the province’s dominant parties, the separatist Bloc Québécois in Ottawa and the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec at the provincial level, have stepped up their determination to have Quebec “nationhood” entrenched as a formal reality.  

Five months ago, only two members of Parliament voted against a Bloc motion asserting “that Quebecers form a nation, that French is the only official language of Quebec and that it is also the common language of the Quebec nation.”

Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet made much of the vote during the federal election when responding to a controversial debate question on “discriminatory” provincial laws. Premier François Legault was no less upset, asserting that, “Regardless of what is said, regardless of what is done in Ottawa, Quebec is a nation, free to protect its language, its values, its powers.”  

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So how is it that a strong, confident “nation” of 8.5 million, which is presumably self-sufficient enough to seriously ponder separation, can also lay claim to $13 billion a year from the rest of the country on the basis that it’s a “have-not” province that’s unable to keep up to national standards?  

Legault is not unaware of the discrepancy. In 2015, when the then-Liberal government produced the first of a series of deficit-free budgets, Legault nonetheless bemoaned the fact that the province remained dependent on the annual subsidy.

In 2017, he noted that payments had tripled in 15 years and pledged that, “A CAQ government will aim for zero equalization. A CAQ government will eliminate the wealth gap with the rest of Canada. A CAQ government will have ambition, will aim high for Quebec.” Soon after assuming office in 2018, he repeated the pledge, complaining that the annual cheque was “embarrassing.” Since then, COVID has pushed the province back into a deficit situation after half a decade of balanced budgets.

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Legault still insists he wants to rid the province of its dependence on the program but says, “The idea that we might let equalization drop is out of the question.” He says Quebec has “a right” to the payment, noting that it is entrenched in the Constitution. Quebec, of course, refused to sign the 1982 Constitution and invokes the notwithstanding clause when it prefers to ignore it.

Albertans have never hesitated to share the wealth — they’ve been doing it for decades. If the money wasn’t all being sent east, to a part of the country that puts such effort into emphasizing its differences and demands, the referendum result might have been different.

National Post
Twitter.com/kellymcparland

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