Bonne Année from the Land of Poutine

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted January 2, 2007

Montréal, Québec: The man next to me on the train must not have gotten the memo. Canada is cold in the winter. Astonished at his lack of common knowledge/sense, I bit my tongue every time I glanced at his mesh shorts as we rode north from New York City.

Without a passport, the middle-aged man carried only his yellowed birth certificate as we barreled through the first snow my eyes had seen all the mild 2006 winter. Douanes Canada, our neighborly customs agents, proceeded through the car with a friendly "bonsoir," as the province of Québec is dominated by French speakers.

My six years of French classes failed to prepare me for the French-Canadian muttering that ensued in the aisle to my side. The man in the all-season gym trunks understood even less, from what I gather, and the agent turned to him with a concerned look even as the passenger chatted up his female companion insouciantly.

"Sir, it seems you have an arrest in 2001. Without a passport, I’m afraid you cannot enter Canada."

Clueless in the Cold

I felt sorry for my fellow traveler as his bare legs were unceremoniously tossed out, but as he trudged towards the customs outpost, I felt sorrier for myself for waiting two hours for such an idiot.

Canada is America, but it is not the United States. It is the attitude of many of my countrymen that there is but one voice in English-speaking North America, and that we somehow have a right to our adjoining boreal territory and its resources.

This begs the question, then: what of French-speaking Canada?

This question is tops in the political and economic landscape for the francophone majority in the province of Québec as 2007 begins, as well as for their linguistic and cultural brethren in places like New Brunswick (where French speakers constitute a large minority of nearly 27%).

Stephen Harper, beginning his first full year as the Canadian prime minister, closed 2006 with a momentous announcement regarding the Québecois, as the provincial majority here is known.

With the approval of the House of Commons, Harper announced on November 27 that the Québecois "form a nation within a united Canada."

This is abundantly clear to the senses. Anyone who has eaten poutine, the gravy-laden dish whose base is, of course, French fries, can tell you. So can anyone with eyes to behold the supremely French fleur-de-lis, which graces tourist items and legal documents alike.

So why did Harper make the statement? His political history provides the answer.

As the parliamentary representative of the riding (as Canadian electoral districts are known) of Southwest Calgary, in the western province of Alberta, Harper has made much political meat of what many western Canadians see as disproportionate influence on Québec’s part.

But he owes the Bloc Québecois, the party most bullishly pushing for legal separation from Canada, for helping him drive the final nail into previous PM Paul Martin’s political coffin last spring. With the Bloc’s backing, Harper proclaimed as leader of the opposition that Martin and his scandal-ridden government had lost the moral authority to govern.

The Bloc Québecois has seen referenda come and go, as the province’s residents narrowly rejected its ultimate political goal. But the Harper announcement is a coup and a step that builds confidence with the new PM, who speaks fluent French as well as his first language of English.

The people of Québec have twin threats to deal with in 2007, and I do not count politics between them. Demographics and its economic corollaries have the potential to do the most damage to the future of Québec’s recently-affirmed status as a "nation within a united Canada."

The gesture was kind, but with the provincial government already called the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly), it had already been made. The proud residents of this province should concern themselves with numbers, not with nomenclature.

Les Numéros

Québec’s natality (birth rate) is 1.48, far below the replacement rate of 2.1, needed for births to make up for deaths.

As Québec’s population is very well-educated (it would rank fifth among OECD countries on its own, with over 18% of the population from 25-64 holding a university degree), decreasing numbers in the workforce mean a hospitable market to job seekers in knowledge industries. But for factory workers, lack of manpower is a knock at the door of industrial death.

What’s more, though the Québecois culture is geared towards self-preservation, Montréal at least is rich in immigrants and the service industries they perpetuate. But Ontario, where Toronto and the capital Ottawa are located, draw 60% of new Canadians, compared with 15% for Québec and British Columbia.

Québec’s GDP growth is also sluggish compared to Harper’s Alberta, which is booming primarily due to its newly-tapped oil resources. Alberta‘s 2007 GDP growth is forecast at twice that of Québec, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The allocation of resources from Ottawa is likely to shift during Harper’s tenure, and Québec will find itself left with the short pieces of cloth more and more.

And as we all know, Canada can be awfully cold with shorts on. Québec must take up its own cause and match its pride with production.

Sam Hopkins


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