Living in Québec/Canada these days is quite exciting if you are passionate about politics like I am. As a foreigner who has lived here for nearly five years, I can only respectfully observe and analyze. Here are some of my thoughts (more than I thought I would put down initially) on current Canadian affairs.
Yesterday Québec elected a new parliament in the context of the global economic turmoil, but also of the recent Canadian political turmoil. My respect to the men and women of all political allegiance that put their personal lives at stake to advance their country. Whether they won or lost last night, they are all winners, as is democracy and all those volunteers who make it happen. Respect also to all the duty-aware voters who made use of their precious privilege despite this election being highly undesirable for most. Thank you all for making democracy happen; for keeping the discussions civil; for advancing a united society.
One Bet Won…
Provincial Premier Minister Jean Charest won a risky bet: he got the majority that the protest vote of 2007 denied him. This will pacify parliament and make it more governable through the upcoming economic storm. Federal Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa take note.
At only 56.6% this was the lowest participation rate since 1927. Compare: 2007: 71.23%; 2003: 70.42%; 1998: 78.32%. And it was an uncomfortably close call by a handful of votes in many ridings under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. A risky bet that could have easily turned into a drama like the one unfolding in Ottawa these days.
… And A Lot Of Work Ahead.
Québec politics are quite elusive. I am not sure if after five years in the province I understand it completely myself.
I see one clear message to Mr. Charest and his colleagues: it was not time to call an election; it is not time for partisanery. As so often, Quebeckers turn to the state in times of need.
Another clear message to the rightist ADQ and its leader Mario Dumont, who announced he will quit politics: emotions swing quickly. The anti-immigrants feelings on which he nearly got to power have left the place to worries about the sputtering economy. The short-term window of opportunity is gone.
For the very first time, Québec Solidaire, a leftist, sovereignist party got a seat – and 122.979 votes. Compared to this, the majority PLQ got a real bargain, at only 20.643 votes per seat. More proportionality, anyone?
The far right ADQ knows ho the far left Québec Solidaire must feel – it has been in the same situation for a decade. When will the window of opportunity re-open again to push for a more proportional voting system, like the D’Hondt system used in many modern democracies? Below a quick comparison of votes and seats to the previous general election, with a D’Hondt simulation:
No pollster predicted the strong showing of Parti Québecois, the party that epitomizes the aspiration to independence of many Francophone Quebeckers. The defensive reflex on language and culture issues is still alive under the surface. Mr. Harper’s insult that triggered unnecessary stupid Quebec-bashing motivated many, including people who do not want Québec to break away from Canada, to defy him and the freezing weather on the day of the vote.
To explain this to my readers who are not familiar with Canadian politics: after World War II, North America was still a racist place for a while. While the United States had racial segregation, Canada had an assimilation policy toward its French Canadian and native minorities. The civil rights movement changed America for the better. And the Québec sovereignist movement forced Canada to change for the better, paving the way for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an achievement that Canadians and Quebecker can be proud of. There is nothing wrong in taking pride in national achievements.
Ever since René Lévesque, and maybe even before, Quebecker defined themselves politically in terms of federalists vs. sovereignists. All other issues that usually define the left and right of the political spectrum were subordinated. To simplify: sovereignists want Québec to go its own way, federalists want to stick to the Canadian way. Even if the root cause is gone, the reflex is still there.
And to avoid the sometimes unintended oversimplification that really offends Quebeckers, a sovereignist is somebody who wants to affirm their identity. There are many ways to do so, and separatism is just one of them, the most negative and radical. Many Quebeckers are offended when they are called separatists as a group, because they are not. Understanding this nuance is key to understanding them. Respect their language and their unique culture and you will get along with them very easily, and discover they have a great sense of humor, a high sensibility and talent for the performing arts, and a practical, warm and welcoming attitude.
After peaking in 1995, support for sovereignity had dwindled until the recent insults. Now it seems certain that independence will be an issue at the next Québec general election, due in four years, and I admit that it scares me. As a Jew of European descent I have my own reflexes regarding the mix of socialdemocracy and nationalism.
Nationalism ist not a Canadian/Quebecker-only phenomenon. Europe has seen the rise in the 18th century of a new political paradigm, the Nation-State, to replace the old paradigm of the Kingdom-State. While the legitimacy of the Kingdom-State was sanctioned by God (and thus by the Church) and continued by hereditary rule, the legitimacy of the Nation-State was derived from a Nation’s right to self-determination and continued by the rule of law. It worked to wrestle power away from the churches and monarchies, but it brought about a worse set of problems.
Nationalism drew Europe (and by extension the rest of the world) into costly expansionist colonialist campaigns and two devastating world wars (1914-18 and 1939-45). Tremendous human loss followed, and power shifted away from old Europe to the new powers of the cold war era.
Nationalism and the notion of the Nation-State is ill equipped to face today’s global challenges because it adds an artificial border between an “us” (the nation) and “them” (the rest of the world). Global warming does not stop at passport control. Moreover, in a time of greater mobility and cultural promiscuity, establishing the rule of a single nation over the state’s territory is dangerous. We are all a minority, sometimes, somewhere.
Nationalism is the seed for discrimination, assimilation, annihilation, war – all opposite of the values most Quebecker and Canadians stand for. And still, when I talk with my Quebecker friends, there is an asymmetry between what has been done to them as a minority within Canada, and what they are doing today as a majority within Quebec, e.g. to the Inuits in Sept-Ilês, or to immigrant minorities in Montréal.
Europe has recognized the limits of nationalism and in fifty years has turned to a new paradigm of supra-national government. The ever growing integration into the European Union has given Europe umatched prosperity and peace. On a smaller scale, Switzerland since after the Napoleonic invasion is a confederation of sovereign cantons, and the Swiss constituion states unmistakenly that the citizens are the sovereign, and power is delegated bottom-up under the subsidiarity principle: that what can be solved at the lower level need not make it to the higher.
Seen from far away, it would be so easy for Canada to ditch the Queen and declare the citizens to be sovereign. Let them decide which powers they want to keep at home (meaning in their own village or municipality, as the term “pays” in French means not only country, but first and foremost village); which one they want to devolve higher up to province, sovereign in their jurisdictions; and which one they want to devolve even higher up to the federal government. But then, this is Québec and things are different here…
It may seem a paradox, but many Quebeckers who are against separation do vote for the Bloc in federal election. Call it a protest vote against the old politics of corruption and as mismanagement. Or simply the perception that it is the party closest to them in terms of values and identity.
As an external observer I find the Bloc to be left-leaning and to share many of the NDP values. But when I discuss this with friends, I constantly hear that they can’t identify with the NDP.
It is not surprising that the idea of a coalition, floated by the opposition to replace Mr. Harper, appeals to Quebecker. It’s not a personal attack on Mr. Harper, even if he called for one. It is just a more flexible and open way to reach a compromize in the interest of election-tired Canadians. This is how most Quebecker see it – and not, as some put it, a way to promote the separatist agenda.
In this last provincial election, Quebeckers obviously sent a message to Mr. Harper. Even the staunchest federalist, when asked about his national feelings, will feel closer to a Quebecker separatist leader than to Mr. Harper. It’s like family ties. You don’t choose your family, and you love andd support them forever. You do choose your friends, and no friendship last long when the friend insult and offend family members.
The vast majority of Quebecker do want to be friend with Canada. Because of the past they are wary of too close a friendship. But if France can get over what Nazi Germany did to it, and share sovereignty with it, why can’t Quebecker, given that the war dates back to 1759?
One Bet Lost?
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada improved its ranking in the World Economic Forum (WEF) yearly Competitiveness Report. No Canadian bank went bankrupt since the U.S. subprime meltdown of September 2007 initiated a global financial crisis whose latest peak in October 2008 sent big banks like Lehman Brothers belly up. The Canadian economy has fared surprisingly well so far given its dependency on the American economy. Tough times are ahead for everybody, but Canada would be much worse off, had Mr. Harper not undertaken to slim the government bloat during his tenure.
Canadians have many reasons to be proud reading the two pages of the WEF report about their country. The Canadian banking system is the healthiest in the world. Having lived in Switzerland and worked for a major Swiss bank, I can confirm.
On the other hand, the report points also to weaknesses: high tax rates (72nd out of 134 countries), complex tax regulations (88th) and inefficient government bureaucracy (40th) – all problems that take time to tackle. Mr. Harper started the job, and he’s doing quite well. I’ve seen tangible improvements.
The Conservative government has been a prudent administrator, improving the economical conditions in Canada for everybody. In times of uncertainty it is understandable that the Prime Minister wants to be even more cautious before spending money on a stimulus package that may as well backfire. And his aspiration to a majority government, like the one of Mr. Charest, is understandable and legitimate as well. Maybe a fixed terms system where the government can’t be voted out before the end of the fixed term, like in France, would help?
A strong leader should have the strength to tell Quebecker that today’s issues like global warming or the global financial crisis don’t bother with national affiliation; that nations don’t sit at the G7 table. Powers do. United with Canada, Quebec can achieve more on those issues that matter such as the environment, than if it went alone. And don’t mention Kyoto – more than two third of the worlds polluters don’t participate to that botched plan, and their polluted air happily mingles with the clean air of those who abide by the plan.
A strong leader encourages a strong opposition. And encorages voters to make a choice. Between left and right. Between the NDP and the Conservatives. On the issues that matter. Switching between government and opposition every few terms is in the interest of everybody. And now it’s the Conservative’s time to govern.
In principle I find the idea of coalitions good. Germany had coalition governemnts for quite some time, both on the right and on the left, and it works well. I would trust more a coalition contract than hollow electoral promises. When the process becomes part of the political system; when the system is more proportional and fragmented as it is going to be; let the leaders of the different parties seek out coalition agreements and let the governor general entrust government to the coalition with the largest number of seats.
But not the currently discussed Liberals-NDP coalition, for the following reasons:
It is too broad: the left wing of the Liberal party is closer to the NDP than to the right wing of its own party. The only thing that keeps the Liberals together is their longing for the lost power that they don’t deserve to get back so quickly; and a political system that penalizes small parties. So they make backroom deals and all sorts of machinations just to get back to power.
The coaltion plan for the economy is lodade of too much pork barrel. In good time this would not be critical, but given the current situation, it could be disatrous, particularly the support for the automotive industry in Ontario advocated by the NDP and the support for the forestry industry in Quebec advocated by the Bloc.
The “coalition” intend to spend a total of 30 billion dollars (your money, my Canadian and Quebecker friends!) to kick-start the economy. It want to give some (7 billions?) to the car makers in Ontario. The US congress is likely to grant to the same car makers about the same amount as the opposition inteds to spend in total. Is anybody north of the border naïve enough to believe they will have influence on the American car makers? And that jobs won’t move south of the border?
Oh, and the forestry. An industry that mismanaged the ecology. One of the few good things of the down turn is that the environment breathe again. Less economic activity means less ravage. And if the industry would be kept artificially alive with your money, it would just further destroy the natural resource. Since there is no demand for wood in the downturn, it would just rotten away.
Want to really help the working class? extend the duration of unemployment benefits for those who need them, and let the economy recycle the worker in those areas of activity that do produce real value.
And the right thing to do? What France is doing. What Germany is doing. What Mr. Harper intends to do when the time is ripe: spend on infrastructure. If you ask me: a high speed rail link between Windsor and Quebec-City. About 1100 Km. 1300 Km if making a detour to connect also Ottawa. Accessible to both passengers and cargo.
30 billions means 23 millions per Km. That’s enough to build such a railroad underground, which would have a few advantages: no disruption through the echosystem; no disruption of the transportation link by the Canadian winter; better energy efficiency. Quebec’s hydro-electricity would power a clean network. Bombardier has the know how to build the trains, and will happily recycle the skills of the jobless car workers. Construction workers from all over the country will recycle on the many building sites along the track.
And this would be just the beginning:
- Vancouver-Calgary-Edmonton (1300 Km)
- Calgary-Saskatoon-Regina-Winnipeg (1300 Km)
- Winnipeg-Toronto (2500 Km)
- Quebec-St.John-Moncton-Halifax (2500 Km)
That’s about 12% of GDP (way more than the 2% the IMF reckons will be needed to restart the economy) and in a few decades the whole country would be linked and ready for a great, energetically clean future.
Is it better to lose 12% of GDP to deflation and depression, or to spend them wisely so that when the economy picks up, the country is united and in better shape to support it?
AFAIK none of this is being discussed currently. Mr. Harper was granted an unprecedented suspension of parliament from the Governor General Michaëlle Jean, the representative of sovereign Queen Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state. The shut down is only temporary and parliament will resume on January 27. The tension has time to cool off until them, and things are likely to change. Mr. Harper is a formidable political operator fighting for his survival, and I bet he will make it. I wish him success. It will be more difficult for him to mend fences with Quebec, but not impossible. An apology would go a long way. And a pragmatic vision for the future too. Everybody can have wishes on Christmas, and mine is to visit my friends in Vancouver and proximity with a 12 hours train ride.