Québec Nationalists: Parlez-Vous Freedom?

The separatists' newest chief proudly boasts about economic nationalism every chance he gets.

Since the 1960s, the Québec National Assembly (provincial parliament) has been full of politicians whose explicit goal is to separate Québec from the rest of Canada. Despite losing two referenda and having mitigated support for their option – it’s stagnating around 30 percent of voters’ intention – they keep promoting their idea as a good solution for the province’s problems, mostly around the Parti Québecois (Party of Québec, or PQ).

Historically, their option would make sense. Starting with the Royal Proclamation of 1763 – the first Constitution for the former New France after the French and Indian War – the British Crown tried to assimilate the former French settlers to make them speak English. They marginalized them by imposing the Test Oath to become a public official, making English the only language of political debates and, after Canada became a country in 1867, abolished financing of French-speaking schools outside of Québec.

An Anti-English Nationalism

Considering how French speakers were oppressed by previous governments, one would think the PQ and separatists in general would want a US-style project with limited government in order to not repeat past mistakes of others.

One would think the separatists would want limited government. They have done the exact opposite.Unfortunately, most politicians (even those who wish to remain in Canada) since the so-called Quiet Revolution have done the exact opposite: they have expanded government in many aspects of Québecers’ lives in order to “correct” past oppression from the English speakers.

No law forbade French speakers to start their own businesses, as happened with African Americans in the Jim Crow South. But now government has extraordinary control over all businesses in Québec. Since previous laws to “protect” the French from the “invasion” weren’t enough for the most ardent Québec nationalists, René Lévesque’s PQ voted the infamous Bill 101, also known as the Charte de la langue française.

Government Control over Private Affairs

In its original form, the bill forbade people whose parents or siblings hadn’t received most of their schooling in English in Québec – it was later amended to “in Canada” – to attend English public schools. There are still periodical discussions to extend the restriction beyond high school.

The bill also forbade commercial billboards to be in any other language than French – later amended to having French as the dominant language of the billboard. This latter disposition is still under the attentive eye of the Office Québecois de la langue française (OQLF), dubbed by its detractors as the “language police.”

Its inspectors can come to any business, usually following people’s tips about Bill 101 violations, and fine them if they have indeed violated the law. An Italian restaurant in Montréal, Buonanotte, was at the center of the Pastagate controversy in 2013 because its menu didn’t have the French equivalents of many menu items like antipasti and calamari. Periodically, the OQLF also tries to take on multinational corporations like Wal-Mart and Starbucks to “encourage” them to either translate their names or add a French element to their name, for example Magasin Wal-Mart or Café Starbucks.

Government Increasing the White Elephant Herd

The language police taskforce is also responsible for enforcing the language used at work. Any business with at least 50 employees must register with the OQLF to show that French is widely used at work. Also, the employer has the burden of proof if he or she wants employees to know any other language, and the OQLF will be the final judge.

But the control runs much deeper that language. The PQ has enacted many expensive legislations whose costs skyrocket while their utility is disputable – what the French call a “white elephant”:

  • They created a nationalized daycare system (known as CPE), whose cost increased sevenfold while there are only three times as many spots available. (Unionized) wages increased over 50 percent since 1997, when it was created. And low-income children’s cognitive development – which the CPE was supposed to improve – has remained within range of other children in the country.
  • They created a state-sponsored drug insurance to which people without a private insurance must adhere. A study by the University of British Columbia states that this public insurance is directly responsible for higher drug cost in Québec – $1.5 billion compared to other provinces in 2012-2013. Premiums also keep increasing, and faster than inflation: 4.7 percent for the fiscal year 2016, raising it to $640.
  • They created a very generous parental leave program – up to 70 percent of regular weekly wage – that was finalized under a Liberal government in 2006, but you have to pay via payroll deductions as soon as the salary reaches $2000. And those “contributions” have increased nearly 32 percent for both employers and employees between 2006 and 2017.

Government Interfering in the Economy

Finally, the late Jacques Parizeau, who headed the PQ during the second referendum in 1995, was also the mastermind behind some of the most expensive and (mostly) useless public projects.

“Mostly” because Hydro-Québec (HQ), the government-owned producer and distributor of electricity, became profitable thanks to oil shocks. Hydroelectricity suddenly became affordable and HQ was able to produce its first dividend in the early 1980s, 20 years after its massive nationalization.

The PQ's newest chief proudly boasts about economic nationalism every chance he gets.One of Parizeau’s largest failures, however, was the partial nationalization of asbestos companies when he was minister of Finances under the first PQ government in the late 1970s. Through this purchase, he wanted asbestos companies to transform some of their mineral in Québec rather than just export raw fibers.

Parizeau apparently skipped his comparative advantage classes at the London School of Economics. According to data from the ministère des Ressources naturelles, the province of Québec exploits one quarter of all the natural elements. Because of its low population density and resulting lower capital-intensive industry, the manufacturing industry cannot transform these minerals profitably. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with exporting raw materials and importing it transformed.

But the PQ won’t have it. In fact, their newest chief, Jean-François Lisée, proudly boasts about economics nationalism every chance he gets. He wants government intervention to keep “strategic” corporate HQ in the province, he complains about the federal government not “investing” enough in Bombardier – a lifelong corporate, er, street worker – and he wants a Buy Québec Act so public entities like hospitals and schools purchase at least 60 percent of their products inside the province. He even wants to extend this Act to public work like the new Champlain Bridge.

Separate in Order to Rule

In other words, the Parti Québecois and most separatists want to control the whip rather than make it shorter or abolish it. They want to separate from Canada in order to create a state where government picks and chooses winners and losers, where one’s mastery of the French language is more important than individual merit, and where expensive social programs keep eating away at workers’ wages, even if it means their median wage is the fourth lowest in the country (as of 2014).

Unconsciously, they want to keep Québec near the bottom of the Liberty Index. It seems “protecting” the French language is a more worthy cause than making Québecers richer.

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