“Thank God they won!” He’d never admit it, but I’m sure Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was thinking something like that when the results came in showing the Parti Québécois won a minority government in Quebec. I don’t blame him. After all, Ontario could profit handsomely from its neighbour’s misfortune.
PQ leader Pauline Marois has made it clear she intends to put politics ahead of business over the next few years, which will almost certainly drive foreign investment (and a few large corporations) out of the province. Ontario will benefit, as it will be able to attract some of the money and jobs that might otherwise have gone to Quebec. Gaming companies, high-tech startups and U.S. retailers eyeing the Canadian market will opt for the security of Toronto over the uncertainty of Montreal.
As a Torontonian, I should be glad, but I’m not. I’ve spoken to francophone Quebecers who are appalled at the idea that their standard of living, their ability to get a good job and feed their family, could be put in jeopardy by a government that’s more interested in reviving referendums that nobody wants, implementing discriminatory policies that ban the wearing of religious symbols, and demanding that everyone who runs for office speaks French.
If you clamber back through history you can quickly discover where such policies lead. At one point, Quebec was the economic powerhouse of Canada, with Toronto huddling in Montreal’s shadow. But the separatist politics of the 1960s and ’70s led to strict language laws, endless talk of splitting up the country and a mass exodus of many of Canada’s largest corporations. When the referendum chatter ceased, things began looking up. Montreal, in particular, has seen both employment levels and several new office towers rise over the past decade, and the city, quite literally, was beginning to shine. Too bad that’s all over now.
Marois has clearly demonstrated that she’ll use the tools of the state to keep foreign investment out of the province. Just before the election, when American home-improvement giant Lowe’s offered $1.8 billion for Quebec’s Rona, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec pension fund loaded up on Rona stock to help prevent a takeover. Marois has said we can look forward to more of that now that she’s in power.
The sad part is that even from a purely cultural standpoint, such an approach is doomed to fail. Policies designed to keep foreign influences out—whether it’s foreign religion or foreign investment—are predicated on a fundamental lie: That the “true” Quebec culture is in the past, and the only way to preserve it is to fight against change. But no culture in history has survived frozen in time, and no politician can control a region’s values. It’s healthy for nations to evolve as new people and new traditions are absorbed by the old.
That won’t stop Marois from trying, though. And she has a window of opportunity to do it. The Liberal party has no leader, and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) has no money, so they’ll have to play along for a while—even though the PQ won a smaller percentage of the popular vote this election that it did in each of the previous three. Marois should tread carefully, and keep in mind that there is a hierarchy of needs that supersedes those of the PQ. In order of importance, it goes: food, shelter, jobs, politics. If she puts politics ahead of the first three, Quebec is headed for trouble.