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Andrew McDougall: Quebec separatism is a dead issue—For now

Commentary

The following is an excerpt from Andrew McDougall’s latest book, Sleeping Dogs: Quebec and the Stabilization of Canadian Federalism after 1995.

On the night of the Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1995, after coming within a whisker of victory, the former Parti Québécois (PQ) premier of Quebec Jacques Parizeau told a large crowd of supporters that they would not have to wait another fifteen years for another chance to vote for independence. In light of the very close result, he assured them their next chance was only just around the corner and they would very soon have another opportunity to take Quebec out of Canada. Now, almost thirty years later, that “next chance” has yet to come and it is nowhere in sight. The Quebec sovereignty movement has found itself increasingly leaderless and rudderless and searching for a new basis to justify its mission. What happened between 1995 and now? That question is the central puzzle of this book.

The answer is twofold. The first involves a change in federalist strategy: federalist Canadians and Quebecers chose a course of action that became an imperative after 1995 but would have been unthinkable in the middle of the twentieth century—drop the subject. They did not solve the “Quebec question,” and federalists continue to hold deeply conflicted views on what the country is really about. Even to this day Quebec has never “signed” the constitutional package of 1982. But, recognizing that any attempt to resolve the problem of Quebec’s place in Canada would lead to almost certain disaster, federalists of every stripe decided to leave the question alone. They successfully depoliticized the subject and changed the political agenda to other, less existential topics.

That alone was not enough, however. Fortuitous political, social, and cultural currents that changed in Canada enabled them to pick this course of action, and this is the other side of the story. Five different explanations have been proposed for why the momentum went out of the sovereignty movement in Quebec, which gave federalists their chance to change the subject. This book dedicates a chapter to each one: constitutional fatigue, non-constitutional accommodation for Quebec, Quebec’s changing identity politics, generational change, and finally economic globalization. What is important to understand at the outset is that there is no one explanation. This phenomenon is multicausal. Taken together, they help us understand better the evolving situation in Quebec and Canadian federalism. Conceptually, the book argues that the country’s federalist political elites have capitalized on these developments to stabilize the country by simply dropping the national question—even when they might still hold very different visions of the Constitution. Alongside these greater forces, much of the momentum that the secessionist movement had in the late twentieth century has not carried over into the twenty-first.

In focusing on the conduct of elites managing the country, alongside these otherwise fortuitous political currents, the book contributes the constitutional theory of abeyances. This concept refers to situations in which political leaders refuse to engage in political conflicts that are so existential that, once politicized, can only be resolved with one of those visions “losing” to the other in a constitutional crisis. To that extent, this book connects the abeyance literature to that of agenda-setting—federalists have taken advantage of improving political conditions to focus on other things as much as they can. Sovereigntists who support Quebec independence have struggled to justify their project and to generate the political support they need to elect parties like the PQ and to find the “winning conditions” required to hold and win a vote on independence.

Federalists have done nothing to upset the status quo, refusing to be drawn into significant constitutional fights with Quebec or to do anything that might stir up a sense of outrage against the rest of the country. Recognizing the morass that constitutional politics have been over the course of Canada’s history, federalists, whether they be from Quebec or the rest of Canada, have refused to engage. The decision to play up or play down a political issue rests in particular with political leaders; they are policy entrepreneurs who can decide what they want their governments to focus on. Over the past twenty-five years, no Canadian prime minister, and no Quebec premier who was not otherwise leading a PQ government, has suggested any interest in reopening the national question. Leaders like Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, and Justin Trudeau have been loath to engage in constitutional fights with Quebec. But this has been matched by a similar reluctance on the part of Quebec premiers Jean Charest, Phillipe Couillard, or François Legault. The attitude of these leaders stands in contrast to the priority that was given to the Constitution by an earlier generation of leaders like Brian Mulroney, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, and above all Pierre Trudeau, who felt there was an urgency to resolve constitutional disputes in order to preserve national unity.

The conflict at the root of the Quebec-Canada debate will be familiar to students of Canadian politics as the so-called contract-compact debate between Quebec and Canada. In Quebec, federalists and sovereigntists alike tend see the country as a union of peoples, equal in status and powers, which has important implications for the powers that the province thinks it should have under the Constitution. The rest of the country generally does not accept this argument, viewing Canada as closer to a contract of provinces, of which all are equal in status and powers. The failure to reconcile these positions has driven the national unity crises from the patriation debate in 1980 through to the Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accords, as well as the two referendums on sovereignty association in 1980 and 1995.

No longer. While the secessionist leaders contend with the decline of their movement, federalists, even those who disagree, have tried to move on and avoid becoming drawn into yet another debate over Quebec’s place in the country. This unwillingness can be seen, for example, in the shared reluctance of the Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) and the federal Conservative Party to be pulled into a discussion about constitutional issues. The QLP, which views Canada as a compact of nations, has a very different view of Quebec’s place in the federation than does the federal Conservative Party, which historically has adhered to a more contractual view of provincial equality since it combined with the Canadian Alliance in 2003. Neither has expressed as much interest in squarely tackling the subject over the last two and a half decades as they did in the last two decades of the twentieth century. In doing so, they show that the proverbial genie can be put back in the bottle, at least for now. To put it differently, the national question is in abeyance until something, or someone, upsets the status quo.

Livio Di Matteo: Canadians are miserable and politicians better start preparing for the blowback

Commentary

Canadians appear to be a particularly miserable lot these days if one is to take media reports at face value. The recent bout of inflation and interest rate increases appear to have brought about a particular phase of economic hardship that has spilled over into personal lives, and that hardship appears to be across the board in terms of demographic and income groups. As a result of financial struggles, inflation, and high interest rates are affecting Canadians’ mental health, according to one report fueling anxiety over housing and food.  

Millennials—particularly those who own a home—are apparently poised to face the most economic pain as interest rate costs steepen on strained debt loads and economic damage lays waste to the economy and expectations. Burdened by debt and rising housing costs, three-in-ten Canadians are “struggling” to get by, with the number of mortgage holders voicing difficulty meeting housing costs up 11 percent compared to last June. If you have someplace to live, you are hard-pressed to pay the bills, and if you do not have a place to live, then you are miserable because you cannot find one.   

With so much misery, it is surprising that the misery index has not been resurrected by assorted pundits as a measure of how miserable we all are. The misery index is an economic indicator first created by economist Arthur Okun during the 1970s which was an era of high inflation and high unemployment known as stagflation in the wake of the oil price shock and its macroeconomic impact. The misery index was constructed by adding up the rate of inflation with the unemployment rate with higher totals being associated with greater economic misery experienced on the part of the public. The index has also on occasion been expanded by including variables such as the bank lending rate. While not a perfect measure of economic welfare, it might nevertheless be useful to see if the current mood of economic angst and misery is captured by such an index.

Using data obtained from the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) source of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, the accompanying figure plots a monthly triple misery index consisting of the sum of Canada’s CPI inflation rate, its monthly unemployment rate, and the central bank rate for the period 1962 to 2023. Such a lengthy time span allows us to examine Canadian misery over time and it is quite an eye-opener. The 1960s were truly a golden age for the economy and were accompanied by some of the lowest values of misery in sixty years. Misery began to rise during the 1970s and appears to have peaked in the early 1980s, during which there was an unemployment rate that peaked at 13 percent, inflation that peaked at over 12 percent, and a bank rate that believe it or not hit over 20 percent one month making the current 5 percent seem like a monetary tea party.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

After its early 1980s peak, misery declined with a major rebound in the early 1990s and then declined again, steadily bottoming out at values slightly lower than even the 1960s during 2017. Since 2017, they have risen, and based on the chart we are now at a point where we are at least as miserable as we were in the 1990s. Over the entire 1962 to 2023 period, this triple misery index has averaged a value of 16.8. As of June 2023, the Canadian misery value is 15—just a bit below the historical average.  

The most miserable month in Canada was August of 1981 when the value of the misery index hit 40.6. During that month, the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, the bank rate was 20.9 percent, and inflation clocked in at 12.5 percent. The least miserable month in Canada was June of 2017 which came in at a value of 8. The unemployment rate was 6.2 percent, the bank rate was 1 percent, and the inflation rate was just over 1 percent.

The misery index charted here does show that misery has been growing since 2017 but it is currently below the historical average—and indeed it is still lower than the early to mid 1990s. It is definitely much lower than the period stretching from the mid-1970s to nearly 1990. And yet, if one talks to people and follows social or mainstream media, one seems to get the impression that things are much worse than the misery index would suggest. So, the question really is, why are Canadians feeling so miserable given that by historical standards, the misery index is nowhere near past historical peaks?  

This is indeed a perplexing and important question. One possibility is that the indicator is not fully capturing the misery of Canada today because there is more to misery than just the sum of the unemployment, interest, and inflation rates. Perhaps we should be including other economic variables, such as the growth rate of real per capita GDP, or perhaps a separate inflationary index for components such as rents and housing. This would suggest that the structure of misery is not as simple as it once was but, like the country as a whole, has become more complex and diverse and the misery index needs a major revamping.  

Another possibility is the old adage that in life and politics, timing is everything. While the recent surge in misery is modest by some previous historical episodes, it comes after a nearly 20-year period of low and declining misery. It also comes right after a global pandemic and several years of anxiety, change, and disruption that has left everyone more short-tempered and less tolerant than usual.  

It remains that the last twenty years have been marked by an era of low inflation, low interest rates and low unemployment, and numerous cohorts have come onto the labour market knowing only cheap money and never seeing recessions like that of 1981-82 or 1991. There may even be an issue of economic literacy at play here given that many are expecting relief from lower inflation rates and do not realize that a lower inflation rate means a slower growth in prices and not a return to price levels from a decade ago.

Or perhaps Canadians themselves have changed and have become less resilient in the face of adversity of any kind. After all, given the rhetoric, many came to feel that the pandemic was akin to a war and siege conditions. While the pandemic in Canada was indeed serious, it affected portions of the population differently. While some were on the front lines bearing the brunt of the pandemic—for example, health workers—others were not. Most wars involve widespread death and destruction of human life and physical and social infrastructure. They are generally not characterized by a situation where many can work from home, the government sends you enhanced transfer payments like the CERB, and you can order takeaway and watch Netflix.  

Whatever the reason, the reality is Canadians feel more anxious, miserable, and petulant than usual, and this will inevitably spill over into the political arena.