LIFE IN QUÉBEC: A STORY OF A LOOMING DEBT CRISIS THAT NOBODY WANTS TO REALLY TALK ABOUT, MUCH LESS DEAL WITH REALISTICALLY.
We live in a nice cozy town. ‘It’s so clean here!’ say all the American tourists to me when they get off the motor coach in Old Québec when I give city tours in the summer months. I usually tell them that, contrary to the USA, we’re much more tolerant of higher taxes here in Canada, especially in the Province of Québec, because, in exchange, we get a lot of bang for our tax buck in the form of a high level of quality and quantity of government services, which includes, by the way, picking up the trash, which, it would seem, is not a given in many American cities.
However, this brings me to a subject which is beginning to be an issue here in our Province. The budget deficit and the debt. For those of you who might need a ‘deficit and debt for dummies 101’ lesson, I’ll make it real simple: The deficit is how much the government spends over and above what it receives in tax revenue in one year, and the debt is the accumulation of all the yearly deficits since the government started keeping track of such things way back when.
What’s fascinating to me as a native-born Anglophone Québecer, who first and foremost identifies with Canada, then Québec, is how long it has taken all the fiercely flag-waving nationalist types here in French-speaking Québec to sit up and take notice of just how deeply they have sunk into the proverbial doo doo so to speak in regards to the state of public finances in this province.
If one goes onto the website of the IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal), it lists Québec as one of the five most ‘indebted nations of the world’. So I guess having elevated ourselves to the status of ‘nation’ has brought with it a certain litany of woe and a burden of responsibility we didn’t quite anticipate when we embarked on our much-ballyhooed Revolution which was ever so Quiet back in 1960, when Jean Lesage (John the Wise, or is that, John the Wise Guy?) promised us that we would be ‘Maître chez nous’ (Masters in our own house).
Well, it looks like the house has been mortgaged several times over. This same IEDM organization, which uses official Government of Québec statistics from the Ministry of Finance’s budgetary forecast for 2011-12, estimates that Québec’s accumulated debt, including the debts of most universities, hospitals, school boards, Hydro Québec, but excluding Québec’s share of the federal debt is in the vicinity of 234 710 000 000$ That’s TWO HUNDRED THIRTY FOUR BILLION, SEVEN HUNDRED AND TEN MILLION DOLLARS, and counting.
I remember almost twenty years ago, when I was at the University of Ottawa, in the original Nation’s Capital, that in the years 1993-94, the Chrétien/Martin administration was all about slaying the deficit and cutting the debt. They were really committed to it. A lot of cuts to health care and education were made. My tuition went up just as I was going back to university. My government bursaries were cut, and my loans increased. I had to be more resourceful and scrounged for more private sources of student financial aid. It forced me to be more resourceful and to budget my time more efficiently in having to fill out lots of forms and get lots of letters of reference, and supporting documents from various sources, but I did it.
A lot of people were unhappy in Ottawa when the axe fell on their department. The entire civil service and way of organizing government administration was re-thought. The Canadian civil service has not been the same since. Some say it is understaffed and can’t do its job properly, while others say it is being forced to simply do more with less.
I get the feeling that the Québec civil service, and the 8 million citizens who count on it for all sorts of things, are, about twenty years after the federal experience, going to have to swallow the same bitter pill. There is simply too much of an entrenched sense of entitlement here in Québec and too many people living off the public feed trough, starting from large corporations, all the way down to individuals on welfare who’re able to work but choose not to for various reasons.
Nearly half the population of Québec pays no tax whatsoever, and our population is aging faster than the rest of Canada, and we are faced with the same sluggish economic outlook as elsewhere. It seems strange, though that it has taken nearly twenty years more than at the federal level for this issue to even make it onto the radar screen. And even then those that do so risk being pooh poohed and brow beaten into submission as mean-spirited neo-conservative ideologues who’re hell-bent on dismantling all that is sacred that ‘we as a nation’ or ‘we as a people’ have ‘built together’.
There are many of the baby boomer generation and a little younger, for whom the state, state-building, and the ideology of statism, especially on the French model, was, and still is, the ‘new religion’, which was to supplant Roman Catholicism as the balm to assuage all that ailed us as a ‘people’. We were to put our ‘faith’ in the ‘universal and all-inclusive generosity and fairness’ of the state, which would level out the playing field and which, if it couldn’t eliminate most class distinctions, it would certainly go a long way in attenuating them.
This ideology is still quite prevalent amongst the aging constituency of baby-boomers in Québec, who’ve benefitted the most from the manna of the Quiet Revolution and its state sector jobs in government administration, health care and education, and social services and who are now retiring in large numbers and aging rapidly and are beginning to require substantial amounts of health and social services, and who also are well-known to be a very vocal constituency at the ballot box.
It remains to be seen if the next Québec government, who will inherit the legacy of all previous big spending habits of all Québec governments since 1960, be they Liberal, UN or PQ, will have the testicular fortitude to buck the demographics of the province and do the right thing so as to guarantee the future solvency of this province. So far the issue is at least on the radar screen, but just about any potential Québec Premier is deathly afraid of taking on the unions in Québec, especially if you are the least bit of a nationalist and have secessionist sympathies. Pauline Marois is the leader of the mainstream secessionist PQ party, which has backed away in recent times from its left-wing allegiances, and François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister and wannabe premier and leader of the newly-formed CAQ party (Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec, or Coalition for the Future of Québec), is a right-wing pro-business secessionist who founded and ran a charter airline in our province before running for office, but wants to put the secession issue on the back burner for ten years while we deal with more pressing issues like the debt.
So perhaps Mr. Legault would have the spine to take on the unions and face the inevitable backlash of street protests and potentially violent clashes between protesters and police as the painful but necessary transformation of our society would be undertaken. What Québecers would have to admit is that it would now be their own kind that was now clamping down on them, and not an outside force speaking another language, which in years gone by was the default scapegoat of choice when one had to blame somebody in this Province for why it wasn’t going well, we could always point our fingers at English-speaking people and conveniently assign blame and lay it at the feet of Wolfe and his acolytes.
Now things have come full circle. Large segments of French-speaking people in our province have become very prosperous, along with their English-speaking compatriots in Québec and the rest of Canada, in large part due to the timely, if perhaps overdrawn intervention of the secular state in their lives, by making access to doctors, colleges and other institutions of higher learning more accessible than in any other time in our history, thereby allowing an unprecedented number of people to rise out of the mire of poverty, by allowing them to be healthy, get educated, start a business, get a good job, own property, become consumers, and so on.
The intervention and indebtedness of the civil state has undoubtedly facilitated the creation of vast amounts of temporal wealth by citizens, corporations, and everybody else that became prosperous through its interaction with the government. But in doing so, the government has incurred vast amounts of debt, trying to be all things to all people, all the time, in all circumstances. This is one thing that the Church never deigned to aspire to: It got involved in health care and education and social services first of all out of a sense of duty dictated by the Gospels and the overall sacred writings in Scripture. To do unto others as we would have done unto us. To care for the widow and the orphan, and whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me, and so forth. Secondly, it did so because of the gaping void left by the absence of the presence of the civil state.
However the civil state, with its non-sanctified, secular understanding of things, arrived on the scene, and declared that all persons have ‘rights’, and ‘liberties’, and ‘freedoms’, and that said affairs are ‘universal’. I get the impression that they’re only as universal as the civil state is able to continue paying for them. As it is, debt service is the third line item on the Québec provincial budget after health care and education. Something tells me that line item number three is getting bigger and bigger because line items one and two, especially one, are growing at an alarming rate.
Hospitals were once, not long ago, ‘hospices’ where one went to die, not to be cured. We may be headed back to such an arrangement for a certain percentage of the population in the not-too-distant future, if the debt situation plays out as I see it.
Yes, our town is very ‘cozy’, and ‘clean’, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. But storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. My advice to all those who are out there and reading these words: save your pennies, and buy yourself some private supplementary health insurance. I already have, and I only earn less than 25 000$/year. My coverage doesn’t cover everything, but enough so that I’d be safe if I was injured and needed supplementary benefits on top of my EI sick benefits or Workers Compensation, and needed the services of a private physiotherapist.
Don’t think that the government you grew up with will be there for you when you retire. You may not be able to retire at all or in the way you hoped or expected to. Be prepared to continue working until you’re 65 and beyond. Make healthy choices, look after yourself. Don’t expect anybody, least of all the government to do so for you in the not-so-distant future. Men of money, power, property and prestige are at this very moment deciding our fate. Some of them are right here in Québec city and they speak French.
Many others, however, are in far off places such as London, New York, Paris, Brussels, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Rome, Berlin, and Los Angeles. The decisions they’re making will directly affect just how ‘cozy’ and ‘clean’ we continue to be here in Québec city, and will ultimately determine how much tax we pay, or not, and how many government services we get, or not, as the case may be. But I can tell you right now, it won’t be some shrill-sounding union boss shouting into a megaphone or protester with a bandana covering their face on Parliament Hill in Québec city that will ultimately determine the outcome of the looming debt crisis in our Province.
It remains to be seen, however, if, after all is said and done, if the trash still gets picked up in Old Québec so as to keep up appearances for the American tourists when they step off the motor coach at the Chateau Frontenac. We wouldn’t want to make out that we weren’t ‘cozy’ and ‘clean’, on top of being ‘polite’, now would we?
Watch this space. Film at eleven. See everything. Free potato peeler if you call now. Operators are standing by. Have your credit card ready. Don’t miss out on this special once in a lifetime offer. Call now!!!