How Will Federal & Provincial Relations Pan Out Post September 4th?

How Will Federal & Provincial Relations Pan Out Post September 4th?


Sharp intake of breath, everyone, here’s Peter Stuart’s latest take on the Quebec Election:

The upcoming provincial election in Québec, which is slated for Tuesday, September 4th, will most likely be won, be all accounts and predictions, by Pauline Marois’ PQ party. However, with François Legault’s CAQ party splitting the vote on the right as well as taking some soft-nationalist votes away from the PQ, and Québec Solidaire on the far-left siphoning off some more hard-core secessionist votes, and  promising to galvanize the youth and student vote with its promise of tuition-free post-secondary education through university, Mrs. Marois’ traditional party of the secessionist option will most likely be limited to a minority government, as discussed in my previous article.

However, this still raises the spectre of renewed federal/provincial friction between Québec and Ottawa, because we will now have, once again, an avowedly secessionist government in Quebec City, albeit most likely in a minority situation, facing a majority Conservative government in Ottawa, which has very little representation in this province within its caucus and cabinet.

Stephen Harper has never hidden his distaste for the province of Québec and French-Canadians’ alleged domination of the national agenda in Canadian politics since Confederation in 1867. Mr. Harper is cut from the mould of western politicians who were shaped by the ideology of what is known in Canada as ‘Western Alienation’. This is an expression which describes how people in the four western Canadian provinces have, and to a certain extent still do, resent Central Canada’s dominance over the Canadian economy, and, in the case of Québec, resent the federal government’s traditionally cautious and prudent handling of the French-Canadian question, always being aware of the particular circumstances under which the French were brought into the British and later Canadian realms, and not wanting to alienate them in their turn by doing anything which would cause them to potentially advocate for a republican/secessionist option.

Westerners have always grated at the way the west was opened up for settlement in the late 19th century, with Central Canadian business interests in Toronto and Montreal controlling most of the investment in railways, colonization, and trade policy in both people and freight going in and out of the west, especially regarding agricultural commodity prices, which for years were controlled by people in Montreal and Toronto. Westerners also resented being forced to purchase their manufactured goods from factories in Québec and Ontario, which only went to protect factory jobs in those two provinces, guaranteeing jobs for French-Canadians and people in Ontario, whilst forcing people out west to buy goods shipped thousands of kilometres from across the country because of the tariff wall on the Canada/US border which prevented them from getting goods cheaper from the US, but which was all designed to build up east/west trade and solidify Canada as a country.

Fast-forward to the era of NAFTA and we now find ourselves much more in a situation where each individual region of Canada is now negotiating with its southernUS neighbours for favourable trade agreements, sometimes through the federal government, sometimes not. Stephen Harper’s vision forCanada has been from day one to reduce the political weight of the province of Québec in Canada, in Parliament, and by pitting different regions of the country against each other on the east/west axis regarding questions of language, culture, trade, and federal/provincial powers.

I’m sure he will find the next several years negotiating with any future PQ government very difficult, because Mrs. Marois has made it clear that she intends on pressing the federal government to give up ever more of its jurisdiction over things such as taxation, EI (Employment Insurance), the National Battlefields Commission, and any other piece of federal land or administrative body which she feels might be vulnerable and could be wrested from the hands of Ottawa.

Ever since the near-death experience of the 1995 vote on secession, secessionists have been taking an incrementalist approach towards achieving their objective. Since they’ve noticed that the ‘one fell swoop’ approach is too controversial and traumatic, they’ve now adopted the tried-and-true British-style method of slow incremental change or ‘death by a thousand cuts’ method to achieve their goal of becoming their own country.

Right now, ever since Brian Mulroney started cutting back on the size of the federal government, and Jean Chrétien accelerated the process, Stephen Harper is taking the process several steps further and is shovelling even more responsibility into the yards of the provinces. However, the provinces still don’t have the taxation powers to go with their ever-increasing burdens of responsibility to provide services, a conflict which has been brewing in Canada ever since the end of WWII, when the welfare state began being built up in our country, and we discovered that the Fathers of Confederation, in their infinite wisdom, had shovelled health care, education and social services into the yards of the provinces, because, in 1867, these were considered very local, parochial matters, whereas, building railroads and canals and raising taxes to finance them was of national importance.

So we wound up with a country where the power to tax is mostly federal, but the responsibilities in the post WWII era to spend are mostly provincial. So now, almost 70 years later, the issue has achieved a critical mass, and in our province at least, are ever-more tinged with linguistic and secessionist tendencies. Just how Stephen Harper handles this one remains to be seen. First he has to see how it goes down on September 4th, and who he will be dealing with thereafter. But something tells me he will be being asked to give away even more of the store than he ever has before.

However, I have an inkling that this might actually even fit in with his long-term strategic plan for dealing with Québec and re-structuring the federation. I don’t see him offering too much resistance to Mrs. Marois’ demands if she’s elected. The federal government’s power in the province of Québec has been in decline since the Mulroney years, and only accelerated under Mr. Chrétien, despite his ham-handed attempts to re-establish a federal presence here after the 1995 vote which led to the now-infamous sponsorship scandal and an even greater decline of the federal presence thereafter under Mr. Harper.

I think Mrs Marois might actually get what she wants on her shopping list. Where this will leave Canada as a going concern and Québec’s place within it is anybody’s guess.

Watch this space.

About the author:

Peter Stuart is a freelance writer based in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.
He has a degree in Canadian Studies from the University of Ottawa.
He has written Op-Ed pieces for the last ten years for publications including: Le Soleil, La Presse, Quebec Chronicle Telegraph and Impact Campus.
Peter writes in both French and English, and and has published his first book, entitled ‘The Catholic Faith and the Social Construction of Religion: With Particular Attention to the Québec Experience’.

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