Nationalist movements quickly make a link between national virtue and social policy, especially when the nationalism is that of a national minority, whether the Quebecois or Basques or Scots.

Political progress for nationalist movements depends on clear differentiation from the national majority coupled with a sense that only the minority taking control of its own affairs can result in justice and fairness being done to its members. The concept of “solidarity” becomes central to the nationalist appeal.

The idea of the Quebecois nation, and not Canada, as the “social justice community” for those living in Quebec has been an enduring theme of the rise of the nationalist movement, whether federalist or separatist. Even before separatism became a respectable political option, and before this idea of the role of the minority state as the vehicle for social justice against the mean-spiritedness of Canada became fully articulated, Quebec was struggling to gain control of social policy. In the early 1960s, for example, Quebec opted out of the new Canada Pension Plan to create its own QPP (La regie des rentes du Quebec), presaging an ever-lengthening list of social demands.

The Quebec national community was not merely portrayed as seeking to promote the social development of all its members, however useful that portrayal was. For this casting of the Quebec state as the fount of generosity and social solidarity allowed the federal state to be portrayed correspondingly as the obstacle to the full development of this more caring Quebec national community. As two acute observers wrote, “In seeking control over social policy, nationalist movements can project powerful images about how their community is different from another because it espouses distinct values. For example, Scottish nationalism, much like Quebecois nationalism, features the image of Scots as more egalitarian and progressive with respect to redistribution than the English.”

The Quebec-as-agent-of-justice-and-solidarity theme offered a rich political vein that nationalists of all parties mined with enthusiasm. Social programs of all sorts were expanded over the last forty years, including the $7-a-day daycare, the state-run auto insurance scheme for personal injuries, an extensive network of retirement and nursing homes, as well as community clinics (the CLSCs), the lowest tuition fees in the country, very high minimum wages, a strongly progressive tax system, etc. Quebec also led not only a movement among the provinces for more autonomy in social and economic policy, but also the charge for extra resources from Ottawa’s coffers, on the grounds that only Quebec could spend them in a way that was consistent with Quebec’s allegedly unique values.

Thus Quebec was able, to choose just a few examples, to get disproportionate funding for integration of immigrants, it promoted vast expansion of the equalization program of which it is by far the largest beneficiary in absolute terms, it got large transfers of tax points not available to other provinces in the Sixties and more recently it got Ottawa to pony up impressive new transfers to the provinces as a result of a fictitious but politically astute claim that a “fiscal imbalance” existed that allegedly favoured Ottawa at the provinces’ expense. This struggle for extra resources for the province was carried on equally aggressively and equally successfully by both federalist and separatist governments in the province. And the other provinces merely sat bemusedly by on the sidelines, looked on admiringly and waited for the booty won by Quebec from a frightened Ottawa to be spread, by the logic of federalism, to all and sundry. Michael Bliss observed, “All of the provinces speedily developed an appetite for being treated like independent principalities, their premiers like princes. Ottawa appeared to be dealing from weakness, not strength, and sharp-witted provincial politicians were happy to rake in the chips.”

It mattered not that there was a wide consensus that Quebec actually did little that was all that distinctive with the social policy levers it controlled: What was crucial was the symbolic positioning of Ottawa as the stumbling block to a more just future.
Economically, nationalism offered an attractive proposition for groups seeking more money and other resources they didn’t actually have to earn, but that they could use the state to take from others: Support us now in our struggle for jurisdiction and resources with Ottawa, nationalists of all stripes intone, and you will be rewarded with a bigger share of the enlarged pie in the hands of the Quebec state. Additionally, a ready-made explanation to rationalize any economic ill effects that might be occasioned by this overbearing state: mismanagement of the economy by the federal government and a voracious appetite in Ottawa for tax resources that properly belong in the hands of Quebec. Not only could nationalists offer a more just society with or without sovereignty, every economic hiccup today was proof that the Quebec state would do better in the future and every social program that had to be forgone for budgetary reasons was the fault of Ottawa’s Anglo-Saxon miserliness.

By focusing economic discontent on federal actions, the nationalists of all parties distracted Quebecers from looking at the extent to which their own redistributionist policies were at the root of the province’s difficulties. In fact, any suggestion from outside the province that the “social justice state” being created in Quebec was at the root of their economic and social underperformance was simply treated as further evidence that the rest of Canada didn’t share Quebec’s “values.” Objections from within the province were treated as an embarrassing social solecism best greeted by a sad smile and a disbelieving and therapeutic silence, most like the one used to distract you before they clap on the straitjacket.

Thus isolated from economic criticism (you were either someone who obviously “didn’t get” Quebec’s distinctiveness and the extent to which French was threatened with disappearance unless heroic measures were taken, or else you were blaming the innocent victims of Ottawa’s mismanagement), the Quebec state in the post-Quiet Revolution period could concentrate on building alliances with powerful interest groups that shared the redistributionist agenda. That would include not only the usual suspects — the civil service, the Crown corporations, the nurses and the teachers, the farmers and the trade unionists — but also the private companies looking through special pleading to be dispensed from bearing the heavy and uncompetitive burden of taxation and regulation that Quebec was now putting in place.

The Quebec social justice-state approach created an opening for federal intervention and therefore dependence on federal transfers. The redistributionist state was undermining Quebec’s economy, creating economic dislocation, unemployment and social dysfunction. With any other province, especially one representing such a big slice of the national economy, Ottawa might have used this as an occasion to pick a fight over policy and try to bring the province into line. That option was not available, not least because part of the nationalist appeal is explicitly that Quebec makes no promises of a higher individual material standard of living. That is what the alternative “Anglo-Saxon” model promises.
What Quebec promised (and continues to promise today) is moral superiority and social solidarity. The fact that this may come with an economic price tag is further proof of the moral superiority of the Quebec nation, for it is willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of social solidarity and the survival of the French language.

But Ottawa, not constrained by the narrow Quebec-based social justice model, could use the increasingly superior standard of living in much of the rest of the country as an excuse for massive spending in Quebec, in effect compensating the Quebecois for the destructive policies pursued by their own government. Quebec City created a demand for social spending by its counterproductive policies; wherever possible Ottawa was eager to supply that demand, even if it took the form of further transfers to the province to finance these programs. The deeper the dependence of the Quebec state, as well as of Quebecers themselves, on Ottawa’s generosity, the more vulnerable would appear the millenarian separatist version of the Quebec justice state at referendum time.

A bidding war was thus unleashed, pitting the government of Canada against the government of Quebec in a battle for the loyalty of Quebecers. Both sides in this battle of the purse have taken it as axiomatic that, while emotion and sentiment would play their role, the most powerful force binding Quebecers to one government or the other, and hence to one or the other of our competing national projects, was and is self-interest; that in turn they have defined in terms of dependence. A citizen dependent on a flow of benefits from one government will likely not vote to quit that government’s jurisdiction. Thus the feds ramped up EI, regional development, equalization, marketing boards and a host of other programs, including in areas of provincial jurisdiction, and did so across the country.
In response, the government of Quebec wanted to make it appear that it could and would step into any void created by Ottawa’s absence and that anyone benefiting from federal cash now could expect more generous treatment from a Quebec that could get control over both jurisdiction and money.

The other provinces took careful note of how successful Quebec was at getting resources out of Ottawa. Organized interest groups such as trade unionists, civil servants, municipalities, universities and others in other parts of Canada noticed how solicited their counterparts were in la belle province by both levels of government. Into the unfolding bidding war rushed the baby boom generation looking for work.

The consequences for Quebec and Canada have been momentous. – From Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values by Brian Lee Crowley.

© 2009 by Brian Lee Crowley. Published by arrangement with Key Porter Books.
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