The Quebec playbook, is that what Alberta’s economy really needs?

Written by Brenda Schimke

Why do Albertans want to be Quebec? We have so much more going for us yet Premier Jason Kenney and leading contenders for the UCP leadership seem more focussed on being Quebec than growing or governing Alberta.

Alberta has been so successful within confederation. With our young and highly educated population, a renowned entrepreneurial spirit, provincial wealth, developed natural resources and the skill-set to become leaders in high tech and green innovations, we should envy no one.

Quebec on the other hand, with a much larger geographic footprint and an abundance of natural resources still languishes as a ’have not’ province.

Much of the Quebecois attitude goes back to their defeat by the English, even though English Canada has bent over backwards to support their language, culture and traditions.

In 1969, Canada became officially bilingual, but it wasn’t enough to stop the explosion of anger in Quebec during the 1970s—kidnappings, an assassination, violence and the subsequent enactment of the War Measures Act. Nor did it stop two independence referendums in 1980 and 1995, both of which narrowly failed.

More changes were made in 1995 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. His government passed a resolution granting French-speaking Quebec special status as a ‘distinct society’—reinforcing civil law in Quebec and gave the province primary authority over cultural affairs, education and broadcasting—key issues in Francophone Quebec.

The resolution also gave all 10 provinces specific provincial control over natural resources, primarily forestry and oil and gas production and called for future ‘self government’ for Indigenous and Inuit peoples.

Prime Minister Mulroney, as a leader of all of Canada, said at the time, “it represents the government’s best calculation of what the various sections of the country want.” He didn’t treat every province the same, but gave in areas most important to everyone.

That’s important to remember – Alberta was also given more powers over natural resources, when Quebec was designated a ‘distinct society’.

It was in 2006, however, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government passed a resolution to recognize  Quebec as a nation within Canada.

The Liberals were totally opposed to such a move, yet voted with the Conservative government for political reasons—Quebec seats are a necessity for Liberal electoral success.

The Harper move opened up a can of worms and today it has led right-wing politicians in Alberta and Saskatchewan to demand that they, too, become a nation within a nation.

On reflection, we now clearly understand Harper’s hidden agenda in his 2006 proclamation for Quebec. It was the opening salvo to devolve an increasing number of federal responsibilities to the provinces and fulfill his long-time goal to Americanize Canadian federalism.

In Canada, the federal government has been given powers and responsibilities in matters that concern all Canadians, most notably  matters that cross interprovincial and/or international borders. These include immigration, criminal law, banking, national defence, citizenship and trade with other countries.

Provincial governments have jurisdiction in matters of local interest and local well-being including primary and secondary education, social services, property and civil rights, provincial and municipal courts, health care. Then there are some areas that have overlap between federal or provincial laws such as transportation, policing and the environment.

Quebec, thanks to Stephen Harper, has now gone far beyond its recognition of a ‘distinct society’ and is forging ahead assuming powers that were never intended at a provincial level—including immigration.

So how has this been working out for Quebec? I would argue from an economic and human rights point of view, not very well, at all.

In 1950 Quebec’s population was 88 per cent of Ontario’s. After each separation referendum, Quebec’s population continued to decline. In 1980 Quebec’s population was 75 per cent of Ontario’s, by 1995, 67 per cent and in 2021 Quebec’s population is only 60 per cent of Ontario’s population.

This divergence of population directly affects Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or economic output.  Statistics Canada reports that in 2019, Ontario had the largest economy in Canada, making up around 38.6 per cent of Canadian GDP. In contrast Quebec represents 19.9 per cent of national GDP, virtually half the output of Ontario.

Consider as well, Alberta has only half of Quebec’s population, yet our GDP today only lags theirs by 4.6 per cent.

Political unrest and governance by ideology unsettles businesses and investors or those looking to relocate for work—all critical components for the economic health and wellbeing of any jurisdiction.

In June 2019, Quebec passed Bill 21 that makes it illegal to wear religious symbols at work including hijabs, niqab, burkas, turbans, and skull caps. Supposedly Catholics aren’t allowed to wear crosses either, but how easy a cross is to hide under clothing. Bill 21 is simply religious persecution of Muslims, Sikhs and Jews, something that is illegal in the rest of Canada.

Then there is Bill 96 passed in June which makes significant amendments to the Charter of the French language.

Newcomers have six months to learn French, then they will only receive services (health, public safety and justice) in the French language. Businesses with more than 25 employees must certify with the language police that French is the common language used in the workplace. Today, statistics show that only half of Montrealers work in French.

Everyone knows it is nearly impossible to become fluent in a new language within six months, even more so for those working in technical fields such as biotechnology, aerospace, engineering, high tech, medical or aeronautics—all important industries in Quebec.

Everyone knows there is a world-wide shortage of skilled and unskilled workers—immigrants are the answer to many first-world country staff shortages. Yet there are only 300 million French speakers worldwide, with the vast majority living on the African continent. Ironically Africa has the most devout Muslim or Christian followers in the world.

Quebec also should remember how many Quebec-based corporations fled to Toronto during the era of separation talk and referendums. Quebec corporations, if unable to attract skilled French-speaking workers, will once again move their corporations elsewhere.

Alberta is not a distinct society, we are not a defeated people, we are not poor, our citizens have always shown initiative and we understand the international competition for skilled labour is absolutely critical for economic success.

Quebec has put the French language and secularism ahead of everything else. What, pray tell, is Alberta so bent on protecting that we are prepared to follow the Quebec playbook and lose our economic clout? Surely if we must emulate an eastern province, let’s pick a successful one like Ontario.

Brenda Schimke
ECA Review

About the author

Brenda Schimke

Schimke is a Graduate with Distinction from the University of Alberta with a BCom degree. She has lived and worked in Alberta, BC and Ontario.