Closing Remarks

Delivered by Senator Hugh D. Segal, DM

February 7. 2012, at the Faculty Club, University of Toronto

I congratulate the School of Public Policy at the University of Toronto for the initiative of this conference on Quebec. It is an important undertaking.

The core duality of our national history and the essential confederal quality of our intergovernmental culture are easily obscured by the inability of our news media to cover processes and outcomes which are neither in failure or crisis.  If the apparently ‘urgent’ often takes precedence  over the truly important for the political class, and when the news worthiness of the business cycle is defined by transactional excitements, it is unfair to blame the media for not caring much about the ongoing and positive dimension of the ever-present Quebec phenomenon, or its central importance to our future.

It in no way diminishes the challenge Canada faces from emergent federal-provincial fiscal and income security  issues, or the benefits and implications of the  re-balancing of population and wealth towards the west, or the dynamics of the Canada- First Nations’ economic and social exigency to underline why the Quebec political prospectus is so important.  As is the way we think about it.  It strikes me that just as the world has moved on from seventeenth century Westphalian nationalism, so too has the debate in and about Quebec moved on.

A few years ago, in a course I was teaching at the Queen’s School of Business, Pierre Marc Johnson, who was a guest lecturer for the day, was asked if he still sought the pure independence of Quebec.  “If you are asking whether my life force is dedicated to the Quebec Flag marching into the next Olympics between Poland and Rwanda, my answer is why would I care?  But if you are asking about the necessary legislative tools, “instruments du societe” to preserve and promote one’s language, culture and civilization in an English and Spanish speaking North America, I care about that very much.”

Passion and “instrumentality” seem two terms from different emotional planes.  That is of course, not so much the case when one’s rights to the necessary instruments of social and economic progress are denied or frustrated.

There has, from the days of the Quebec Act of 1774, been a core question Quebec’s distinctive culture, language and history always posed about Canada’s future.  Partially existential, partially about our civic identity, that question is always about the kind of society we wish to build, to sustain and to advance, and how we shape a common identity from entrenched and flourishing diversity.  More cultural and political than structural or technical, this question, and our answer to it, is at the core of how we will shape Canada in the future.

When different cultures accommodate each other, they both change.  I think that kind of change is good.  I think it is enriching and broadening.  It is not always easy and accommodation usually follows serious angst about assimilation or dilution.  And even today, there are narrow slices among Francophone Quebecers and Orangiste Anglos who deeply resent the accommodation – but they are vastly outnumbered by those who are  accepting of or even rejoice in, its constructive perpetuity – a perpetuity which will always require engagement and creativity.

I have had in my office for some many years a Maurice Duplessis campaign poster with the slogan “cooperation toujours, assimilation jamais!”, at its centre, not perhaps, the ringing words of “Liberte, egalite, fraternite”, or “life liberty and the pursuit of   happiness” or even the more prosaic “peace, order and good government”.   But, as a touchstone for the intrinsic mix between opportunity and risk in the Quebec Canada spectrum, it is down to earth, a solid bottom line and works quite well.  Those who forget it or diminish the implicit balance it reflects, do so at their own peril.

Quebec, its unique cultural, artistic, governance and policy attributes is one of a few non-natural resource core advantages Canada has had from the outset.  Those among the academic or think tank class, and they know who they are, that like to blame Quebec and its political clout for all the fiscal excesses or social policy overspends in our history reveal more about themselves than they understand about the  Quebec/Canada dynamic over our history.  Tommy Douglas and his courage on health insurance for all,  Mr. Justice Emmet Hall, who reported on Medicare for Prime Minister Diefenbaker, Bible Bill Aberhard who campaigned against poverty, these are not quite Societe St. Jean Baptiste  pillars, nor is Bill Davis and his guaranteed annual income supplement for all seniors.  Blaming Quebec is the old game and the lack of factual basis for the claim never diminishes its bigoted attraction for some.

Quebec and Alberta have a dynamic and leveraging partnership important to Canadian federalism because they share frustrations and imbalances with similar attributes.  Neither trusts the majority of Canadians or Ottawa to always treat them fairly.  Quebec has a public policy vision around social cohesion and solidarity and its programmatic support that is laudable and different.  Alberta has fabulous wealth but has been tied to a resource harvesting base that is not without cyclical, fiscal and environmental challenges.  Both contexts make each justly wary of federal incursion into their Section 92 constitutional prerogatives or “instruments”.  And each, together, were responsible for the 1988 electoral victory for Free Trade for which many of the Toronto culturati have yet to forgive them.

Quebec and Alberta were so eager for Free Trade in large measure because of their own sense of cultural, resource and creative confidence about the uniqueness of what they are and what they had to offer.  Ontario’s angst then was because of a discomfort about the depth or uniqueness perhaps, of what it offers.  But the hard truth is that by all of Canada continuing to accommodate and embrace the value of difference that Quebec symbolizes, and in the way other regions convey their own unique tonality, Canada is stronger and, these days, deeply admired.  That Ontario provincial politicians have not offered a humane, new or innovative social policy idea in over two decades is not Quebec’s fault.

Quebec is also the canary in the mineshaft on cultural issues, excessive centralization, or obtuse insensitivity.  Quebec voters or political parties, or CEOs, or union leaders may not always be right – and who is – but they are never silent.  And, at a time when global pop culture, macroeconomic and fiscal winds, digital and platform obsession seem inescapable, and where obsession with efficiency and productivity tends to produce less of both, canaries in the mineshaft that ask “what’s really going on here?” questions  have never been more important.  The fact that large aspects of Quebec’s political and economic culture are a bit more dirigiste and socially democratic surely enriches the broad spectrum of political choices we see and hear about nation-wide.  What this all means for Canada and our future together is in some ways and areas different from the past and arguably, in other ways still largely the same.

Canada will either have the creativity to shape policy frameworks and directions in ways that allow creative and different forms of subsidiarity to flourish and expand, or it will not.  The space provinces should have to shape different approaches will be there and financed responsibly, or it will not.  The spirit of an inclusive “sensibilite confederale” will survive or it will not.  If it erodes or implodes, then confederation itself will once again be in peril.

We are more of a confederal union and asymmetric federation in large measure because of Quebec and its take on pensions, education, health care and resources over our history, supported by the way, often by Alberta in the mix.  As Tom Courchene has pointed out frequently, the majesty of our federal system is the ability to learn from failures and best practices in different provinces which need not be uniform or monochromatic in areas of provincial programming under section 92 jurisdiction.  This diversity has never been more vital and defending Quebec’s rights in this mix still is very important.

While open federalism – the ‘ Federalisme d’ouverture’ of Prime Minister Harper, seems to remove the unduly centralist bullet from the gun, the more intense centre left in our national politics, who may be down but are not out, will be eager to bring back the “we know best” Ottawa that, under Mr. Trudeau, saw the Sovereignist movement flourish.   How we deal with this, how it rolls out in the years before federal campaign 2015-16 will be the next crucial chapter.

If Quebec is our most European of provinces from the point of view of language mix, demographics, social subsidy, state enterprise and taxation, does that mean, as proponents from the federalist and sovereignist side of the spectrum jointly argued a few years ago in the “lucidite”manifesto for fiscal competence, that Quebec has European affordability and imbalance issues that are and were severe?  Not really. Greece, Italy, Portugal perhaps even France and the UK would be delighted with Quebec’s overall economic and fiscal challenges as opposed to their own.   But the truth is that Quebecers are in constant pursuit of different kinds of political formations, often at the expense of the established federalist and sovereignist parties, who seem more pragmatic and less obsessed by “la question national”.  It is as if Quebecers are saying to their two main protagonists over the period from 1976 to today, that they are tired of that question being used to dilute debate on mature choices Quebecers need to make on healthcare, taxation, First Nation relations, seniors’ and broader income security and the rest.  That being said, today’s Ontario is in no fiscal position to lecture or offer a better fiscal model.

The battles around the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords of the late eighties and early nineties seem, along with the heart stopping 95 referendum, to still be serving as an inoculation against any federal-provincial design innovation or creativity from Quebec or Ottawa.  Certainly in social policy where subsidiarity and overlapping jurisdictions should lever innovation, there has been no innovative revitalization of the federal-provincial proposals for decades.  There are more ways to revitalize a confederation than just constitutional and there are more and better ways to build the Canada-Quebec opportunity than narrow withdrawal behind the battlements of section 91 and 92.

What would signal a new cooperative instrumentality that respected existing sovereignties would be the kind of work where options for informed deliberation on both sides would be enhanced.


  • Canada and Quebec, who disagree on federal tough on crime proposals, could agree on a joint base case analysis starting the year Ottawa’s new laws come into effect so that real trends in incarceration and associated costs, as opposed to feared or dismissed prospects, are available in two to five years time.  This could be done with other provinces as well.
  • On poverty and income security, Ottawa and Quebec could commit to Dauphin-like Mincome pilot projects in various Quebec locations that enriched the relative deliberative data sets on poverty eradication going forward – with which each government could make subsequent decisions.

There is a creative agenda for cooperation and engagement that underlines the respect for diversity and cultural duality at the soul of a constructive Quebec/Canada relationship.  If, as Parliament has affirmed in November, 2006, Quebecois are a “nation” within a united Canada, then it is time we all asked ourselves how the genuine benefits of a post nation-state “new multinational” Canada can best be achieved-in social, economic and geopolitical terms.  Quebec’s capacity to energize this debate and search should be celebrated.  It is the kind of positive “projet du societe” task a country with our resources, relative wealth and even temperament should embrace with courage and good will!

Dynamic federalism is the option Quebec’s sovereign subsidiarity poses as an opportunity for our Canadian version of confederal government.  Federalism is a system of government that embraces the core reality of a diversity of local needs and opportunities beyond the central exigences for monetary, macroeconomic, defence and foreign policy requirements.  There would be no Canada without this kind of supple federalism; and our brand of supple federalism is because of the distinct needs, dynamics and “revendications legitimes et traditionelles” of Quebec.

While various issues may be sorted out for short periods from time to time, it is still true that federalism must adapt and adjust to stay relevant and constructive.  Asymmetry was the great Pearsonian sort-out with leaders in Quebec like Lesage and Johnson from both sides of the Quebec political spectrum.

Down the road, the challenge will be more about what dynamic subsidiarity means and how different approaches on health care, post-secondary education, the environment, aspects of settlement and immigration policy and even the administration of justice can be accommodated within a multinational confederal union called Canada.

I am a decentralist and believe that pragmatic devolution is always the right way ahead.  A federal government that is nimble, sophisticated and focused on its national priorities and provinces with the competence to discharge their full scope and breadth makes more sense than underfunded provinces unable to meet their constitutional duties and a federal government rampant with spending power it should not have in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

Addressing the Quebec question is more than just “la question nationale”.  It is to address the very purpose and substance of governing ourselves competently and responsibly in Canada itself.

- Senator Hugh D. Segal, DM