Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

How Quebec can get its mojo back

  • Print

CALGARY — For decades, Quebec and its governments have been petulant and demanding. The tendency has been there since at least the first avowedly separatist Parti Quebecois government was elected in 1976. That habit continued regardless of the party in power, and of course, depending on the party, there was always the threat to separate.

The new Quebec premier, Philippe Couillard, has hinted that he has little interest in such political games. True, he is on record that he wants Quebec’s "distinct society" recognized formally by other provinces. However, Couillard later said he would not push for new constitutional talks, ones where that perennial Quebec demand would once again be present and problematic.

That willingness to avoid constitutional wrangling is useful, especially given that Couillard would be better advised to stick to his election promise to restore Quebec to prosperity.

For one thing, the "rest of Canada" is less likely than ever to cater to provincial politicians in Quebec. They no longer need to, in part because the balance of the population has been shifting to Ontario and to the West for decades.

In 1980, the year of Quebec’s first referendum on separation, Quebec accounted for 27 per cent of Canada’s population; that dropped to 25 per cent by 1995 (at the time of the second referendum) and 23 per cent by 2013.

By contrast, in 1980, British Columbia and Alberta represented 20 per cent of the country’s population, but by 2013 accounted for almost one-quarter (24.5 per cent) of all Canadians. (The Saskatchewan-Manitoba share has dipped slightly but the overall Western share is up due to B.C. and Alberta’s growth.) Ontario’s share of the country’s population has also grown, from 36 per cent in 1980 to 37 per cent by 1995 to 39 per cent by 2013.

The ramifications of the population shift away from Quebec are potentially profound. Whereas Ontario and the four Western provinces constituted 64 per cent of the country’s population in 1980, they now account for 70 per cent of Canada’s population.

That six per cent increase may not seem like much but it matters to parties trying to gain a majority in the House of Commons, which is increasingly likely to reflect Ontario-Western Canada interests than the 20th century Quebec-Ontario axis.

In 1980, Quebec’s 75 seats meant it had almost 27 per cent of the seats in Parliament. After additional seats are added for the 2015 election, Quebec’s new 78-seat share (out of 338) will represent just over 23 per cent. The West and Ontario (with 61 per cent of Parliament’s seat in 1980) will have 225 seats in 2015 - or almost 67 per cent of the 338 seats in Parliament.

Critically, beyond the raw numbers, Ontario is in the odd position of being a have-not province receiving equalization payments, yet remains a net contributor to the federal balance sheet. So more Quebec demands - for money, power, and even soft recognition - might well hit a brick wall of opposition or indifference in Ontario as they have out West.

Which leads to this thought: Quebec’s relative decline vis-à-vis the West and Ontario was not inevitable. While separatist politics were not the only factor in Quebec’s decline, the rise of a political class that was both separatist and interventionist chased away investment. To use one recent example, consider corporate head office counts between 1990 and 2011. In that time, Montreal slipped to third place behind Toronto (which also lost some) and Calgary, which almost doubled its head office count since 1990.

It was not always thus. In a 1940 Royal Commission report on federal-provincial relations, the authors noted how, prior to the Great Depression, Quebec’s financial position was "long considered to be the fiscal Gibraltar of Canadian provinces." The Great Depression ended by the time that report was issued, and post-war, Quebec and the rest of Canada blossomed again until about the 1970s. Then, the separatist and interventionist predilection had a predictable depressing effect upon Quebec’s fortunes.

Now, la belle province is more famous for high taxes, deep debt, corruption, and a confused approach to entrepreneurship and investment that discourages energy and mining on the one hand while massively subsidizing private and government-owned businesses on the other.

Premier-elect Couillard has pledged to "put Quebec back on the path to prosperity." As well he should. Quebec was once an opportunity-based culture, prosperous and a net contributor to Confederation. Quebec’s future could once again resemble its laudable past.


Mark Milke is a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute.



Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Maurice Leggett on his three interceptions vs. Alouettes

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local/Standup- BABY BISON. Fort Whyte Centre's newest mother gently nudges her 50 pound, female bull calf awake. Calf born yesterday. 25 now in herd. Four more calfs are expected over the next four weeks. It is the bison's second calf. June 7, 2002.
  • A nesting goose sits on the roof of GoodLife Fitness at 143 Nature Way near Kenaston as the morning sun comes up Wednesday morning- See Bryksa’s Goose a Day Photo- Day 07- Web crop-May 09, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Should panhandling at intersections be banned?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google