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Old Arguments, New Horizons

The old debate over Quebec’s place in Confederation has very little relevance to Canada’s economic future or the people chasing that future, argues John Ibbitson.

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13 March, 2014
John Ibbitson
By: John Ibbitson

Globe and Mail writer-at-large

If you didn’t catch the historic significance of Stephen Harper heading to South Korea to sign a trade deal at the same time Quebeckers once again debate their future within Canada, then you don’t understand where this country is heading.

While the Central Canadian commentariat gears up for a richly rewarding return to the old days of agonizing over Quebec’s place in Confederation, the future-oriented parts of this nation have other things on their mind. For them, it hardly matters who wins the Quebec election on April 7th. After all, what does that election have to do with Canada’s Pacific destiny?

Your correspondent was in Calgary last week, talking with political scientists, executives in the energy sector, and guys who pour beer.

Not once—not once—did anyone bring up the question of the Quebec election. No one was curious about how it might play out. No one wondered what the chances of a referendum might be if the Parti Quebecois secured a majority government.

They much preferred to talk about exciting new markets in the Pacific; the most politically feasible way to get oil to the West coast; whether the Keystone XL pipeline will be approved; or how that hole in the ground—one of so many—will soon be the tallest building in Western Canada.

This is fundamental.  As you might have read last week, nine out of ten net new jobs created in Canada last year were in Alberta. This province is the beating heart of Canada’s economic future.

And as the 2011 census revealed, so many migrants, both foreign and domestic, are flooding into the Prairies and British Columbia that the population of the four Western provinces now exceeds that of Quebec and Atlantic Canada combined.

In terms of wealth, in terms of population, in terms of political power, Western Canada has become a dominant voice in the national debate. And that voice doesn’t even want to discuss anything as unproductive as Quebec’s future within Canada.

Of course, Ontario still represents almost 40 per cent of Canada’s population and GDP. But two-thirds of Ontario voters now live in suburbs. In many of those suburbs, immigrants from China, India, the Philippines, and other Asian and Pacific nations dominate. They have no stake in the old wars over culture and language.

Like their Western counterparts—with whom they increasingly vote in common cause—suburban Ontarians see Canada as a cosmopolitan, globalized nation in which the Pacific, not the Atlantic, represents the future.

For these citizens, a constitution is small beer compared to a trade deal. Take Korea—Liberal and Conservative governments have been struggling for a decade to negotiate an agreement with this rising Asian power.

Beef and pork producers welcome access to a market of 50 million people. The auto industry worries about the competition. On the other hand, the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks—which involve 12 Pacific nations, including Canada—could eliminate subsidies protecting the dairy and poultry industries, in exchange for greater access to markets for Canadian products and services.

Should Canada fling open its doors to global trade in agriculture products, while also lowering any remaining barriers to manufactured goods? What about opening government procurement contracts to foreign competition, as the new trade agreement with the European Union requires? And what rights should corporations, foreign and domestic, have to sue governments that violate trade treaties?

Now that’s a debate worth having. What the word “nation” means when applied to Quebec—how many mouths would that feed?

The Scots will hold a referendum in September on whether to leave Great Britain. The message from both Westminster and Brussels is message is blunt: If you leave, you’ll be poor. You won’t be able to use the pound. You won’t have access to the European Union. You’ll be outside NATO. You will be diminished as a people.

The same is true of Quebec. Leaving Canada would separate the province from a young, growing, prosperous, outward-looking nation. The new state would start out with an aging, shrinking population shunned by immigrants, thanks to policies that discriminate on the basis of language and religion.

An independent Quebec would be crippled from the outset by debt and, worst of all, would have no preferred access to North American, European or Pacific markets. Leaving Canada would surrender the future for the sake of a mythical past. It would be economic suicide.

That, at least, is what millions of Westerners and suburban Ontarians might say to their brothers and sisters in Quebec, if you could get them to pay attention. But you can’t. They have much better things to do. They’re chasing the future.

A version of this piece first appeared on “John Ibbitson’s Blog” CIGIOnline on March 10, 2014.

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