Comfort and dependency

By Akil Alleyne on September 2, 2009

I will never forget the surprise and disappointment I felt as a child when I first discovered that the word used to describe opponents of Quebec sovereignty was “federalist”. Even at the tender age of ten, I was dismayed that as Canada teetered on the brink of dissolution, this dry, wishy-washy term was the best its principal defenders could do. “Federalist”? Nothing more stirring, such as perhaps “loyalist”? Not even merely “unionist”? “Federalist”?

What poor ammunition this made for the NO forces in the near-death experience that was the 1995 referendum! Against the YES campaign’s appeals to Quebecers’ fierce pride in their identity and heritage, against the onslaught of Lucien Bouchard’s embittered yet seductive demagoguery, against stirring separatist slogans like “solidarity” and “independence”, Canadian unity revolved around a bloodless geopolitical abstraction like “federalism”. What kind of cause was that, I asked myself. Where was the passion there? Where was the pride? Where was the patriotism?

I eventually learned with great chagrin the reason for this flaccid anti-separatism: that Canadian patriotism per se is lost on most francophone Quebecers. Several years ago, pollster Maurice Pinard found that only about 12% of Quebec francophones self-identify as “Canadians”. Approximately 30% identify as French Canadians specifically; more than half of the rest call themselves “Québécois” and nothing else. This rings a bell; my Québécois acquaintances’ attitudes towards Canada generally range from shrugging indifference to outright hostility. Whatever patriotic fervor they feel is reserved strictly for Quebec. I cannot but agree with journalist Richard Gwyn that culturally and emotionally, most of Quebec effectively separated from Canada long ago.

Hence the age-old federalist focus on Canada’s capacity to accommodate Quebec’s autonomy, while noting that one can be both a proud Quebecer and a proud Canadian. Since so little passion for Canada beats in the average Québécois breast, the federalist case of the past three decades has also included a less high-minded dimension. I refer to the essentially mercenary argument against sovereignty—that it would endanger Quebecers’ access to unemployment insurance, family allowances, old-age pensions and all the other strands of Canada’s bounteous social safety net. “You may not love Canada exactly,” the federalists tell Quebecers, “but you know where your bread is buttered.”

Sovereignists have spent three decades bemoaning the effectiveness of this cynical federalist pitch. Denys Arcand’s 1981 cinematic polemic Comfort and Indifference, for instance, blamed Quebecers’ bourgeois comforts for their reluctance to fly the Canadian coop. I used to dismiss this lament as so many sour grapes from separatist sore losers. Arcand’s footage of interviews with ordinary Quebecers during the 1980 referendum campaign made me think twice. A former Radio-Canada employee asked PQ minister Claude Morin what would happen to 5,000 CBC jobs in Quebec. A taxi driver worried that the price of gasoline might double after a Yes vote. A group of retirees fretted over the fate of their old-age pensions, and a middle-aged homemaker wondered whether the loonie’s value might plummet. “Do you bite the hand that feeds you?” asked an elderly film librarian. All of this reminded me of the dire predictions I heard as a child during the 1995 referendum campaign—e.g. then-Finance Minister Paul Martin’s warning that separation would jeopardize up to a million Quebec jobs. 

Though they helped avert the separatist threat, these fears troubled me deeply. These fine folks did not resist the Péquistes’ blandishments out of love for Canada; they were simply afraid that their province could not hack it on its own. Was there no way to keep Quebec in Canada without exploiting its dependence on the Canadian social-welfare crutch? Was Canada worth preserving if the task required such Machiavellian tactics?

This cold-blooded realpolitik has elicited justifiable accusations of fearmongering from sovereignists for decades. Yet the separatists deserve little sympathy, for they have brought this on themselves. They have wrapped Quebecers in the embrace of a welfare state so generous that Quebec could never finance it alone without raising its already onerous tax burden—even now the heaviest in North America. This leaves Quebec City heavily dependent on equalization payments from Toronto, Edmonton and Victoria, relayed by the very Ottawa the separatists so despise. Small wonder, then, that Quebecers have twice balked at the sovereignist offer. Indeed, they know where their bread is buttered—with a maple leaf-engraved knife.

Given its strident insistence that Quebec can handle its own business, the Parti Québécois’ history of relying on Canada’s largesse to shower Quebecers with social programs is downright hypocritical. The Péquistes actually have more reason than anyone to try to wean Quebec off of its dependence on Ottawa’s fiscal charity. Quebec would likely suffer a punishing fiscal crisis in the aftermath of secession due to the loss of transfer payments from Ottawa—one of the main fears impeding Quebecers from taking the sovereignist plunge. To rectify this, the Péquistes must either persuade Quebecers of the need to be less dependent on government to prop them up (what a tall order!), or prepare Quebecers for the even higher taxes the province would need to finance its lavish nanny state by itself. 

Otherwise put, the sovereignists have a vested interest in nudging Quebecers towards greater self-reliance, either individual or collective. Either course would require great sacrifice on Quebecers’ part; but to reject both would perpetuate their fear of striking out on their own. Many Quebecers find sovereignty appealing, in the abstract at least. They have yet to seize it because too few of them prize independence highly enough to be willing to pay a price for it. To break that logjam, the sovereignists will have to tackle the very culture of entitlement they have nurtured in this province for generations—the mentality that holds that Canada owes Quebec a living.

When the Péquistes eventually return to power, with or without the “winning conditions” for another referendum, they will be wise to begin building the substance of true independence—the willingness and ability to provide for oneself—if only to prepare Quebec for eventually acquiring its trappings.  

In Comfort and Indifference, a succession of YES voters lamented the trepidation that led almost six of every ten Quebecers to reject sovereignty in 1980. A voluble carpenter from Daveluyville diagnosed the malady thus: “You want to know who screwed us? We were screwed by Quebecers—by people who don’t take their responsibilities!” Another artisan from Saint-Jérusalem lamented Quebecers’ bourgeois insecurities: “When the time comes for us to stand up and be counted, the first thing people say is, ‘What’ll it cost us? It’s too expensive!’” Retired boxer Réginald Chartrand, after soundly thrashing his federalist opponent in an exposition bout, proclaimed, “I wanted to show Quebecers that they must take risks. Nothing has ever been given to us for free.” He went on to say, “The only path in life is the difficult path. The easy path is for imbeciles. We Quebecers don’t have the right to choose the easy path, sitting in our slippers, waiting…”

If only the Parti Québécois were as hardy as these fearless militants! 


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