Harper and Couillard: A dangerous combo for Quebec

Photo: CSN/refusons.org  Raynald Leblanc

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Quebec is indisputably an essential component in Canadian confederation. Of course, no one doubts this, especially since the national question is hardly a hot topic of discussion around the dinner table these days.

But to see Harper and Couillard’s efforts to have dirty oil shipped from Western Canada’s oil sands through Quebec, we have to wonder if we aren’t returning to Canada’s origins, with the building of the railroad to connect the British colonies for the benefit of English capitalists.

It’s not only the train that is central to this current capitalist strategy to unite Canada. There’s also the pipeline, at the end of which is the Saint Lawrence River. But for Quebec, it’s more like a wall. What will Quebec society gain if they succeed? Nothing, considering the hazards to the environment and how little it will do to for job creation and the economy.

Premier Couillard, who came across as a great promoter of job creation during the election campaign that brought him to power, should have taken a look at some of the many studies showing that Stephen Harper’s mania for Alberta oil has been catastrophic for eastern Canada’s economy, especially in Quebec.

The “Dutch disease”

In 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had already issued a warning to Canada. It said Ottawa should not put all its eggs in the oil barrel in order to “keep job numbers high and ensure an equitable distribution of wealth among all the regions.” According to the OECD, while Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador have “prospered,” Quebec and the other provinces have seen job numbers dwindle with skyrocketing prices for commodities that bolstered the Canadian dollar. Sectors vulnerable to the exchange rate, such as the manufacturing and tourist industries, have borne the brunt. This is what has prompted commentators to say that Canada was afflicted with “Dutch disease.”

Jobs wiped out

Since Stephen Harper’s party came to power in the early 2000s, no fewer than 500,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector have vanished, including a substantial number because of a rising Canadian dollar whose value increased as a result of oil sands production. In Quebec, at least 160,000 jobs in this sector have been lost in recent years. Since the beginning of 2014, losses amount to some 100,000 full-time jobs , including 82,000 since the Liberals were elected and 30,000 in October alone. And yet, during the electoral campaign, the Liberals had promised to create 250,000 jobs during their term, including 35,000 this year.

The fact that Premier Couillard doesn’t seem to be upset by the lost jobs in the manufacturing sector, including a large number that result from choices made by the Conservatives, adds to the shameful nature of his support for his federal counterpart’s policies.

Doesn’t this mean the Liberals’ austerity measures will lead to a social deficit, with cuts to services and programs aimed at redistributing wealth but also clearly impoverishing Quebec? The answer lies in the question, if you ask me.

A dangerous duo

It is hardly surprising that Philippe Couillard is deferring to the Conservative government’s retrograde policies, which are hitting Quebec especially hard. By moving ahead with the dismantling of our social safety net, is he not trying to change Quebec into just another Canadian province, some of which are modeling themselves on certain states to our south?

All the same, his silence on the fiscal imbalance is shocking. The federal government has been able to give itself good budgetary leeway, in part by acting on programs under provincial jurisdiction, such as health transfers and equalization payments, and by slashing employment insurance, which has impacted social assistance here in Quebec.

Premier Couillard’s response to increasing supertanker traffic on the Saint Lawrence is equally distressing. He views it as Quebec’s contribution to the coast-to-coast economy in exchange for Canada’s “generosity” under equalization. Any more and he’d be telling us to pay part of it back. This eloquently demonstrates the vision of austerity that blinds the ruling Quebec Liberals: there’s no question of looking for new revenues to achieve a balanced budget, even if it means asking Ottawa for more.

In its position paper submitted to the Taxation Review Committee, the CSN pointed out that the federal surplus would reach almost $110 billion in 2034-2035 as a result of Ottawa’s reforms to the Old Age Security program and transfers to provinces and territories. The provinces, on the other hand, would be in the opposite situation. And the worst part is Finance Minister Leitão said on September 17 that it is out of the question for Quebec to occupy the tax field freed up by the federal government. These amounts could nevertheless provide a little boost for our social programs and public services.

November 29: a huge gathering

Next year we’ll have the opportunity to get rid of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. 

It’s won’t be that easy with Philippe Couillard’s Liberals, elected to lead a majority government on April 7. However, since September 20, at a demonstration by municipal workers that attracted more than 50,000 people, Quebeckers have had several opportunities to demonstrate their opposition to the Liberals’ austerity measures: on October 31, at a demonstration organized by the Coalition opposed to user fees and privatizing public services, on November 9, in support of continued universal daycare, and lastly, on November 29, with more than 100,000 people demonstrating against austerity in Montreal and 25,000 in Quebec City.

2015 will undoubtedly give Quebeckers the opportunity to declare loud and clear that they are committed to a welfare state that gives itself the means to better redistribute wealth, through accessible, high-quality public services and social programs.

It’s our responsibility to do so.

Jacques Létourneau, president, Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) 

This piece is translated from French, and adapted from a piece that appeared before the protests of November 29.

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