Quebec Separatism Dims as Harper Spending Quells Urge to Leave
By Alexandre Deslongchamps
May 8 (Bloomberg) -- Michel Tremblay, a French-speaking Montreal native, has for almost 30 years supported parties that want Quebec to leave Canada. In the next national election, he plans instead to back Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
``The flame has gone out,'' said Tremblay, 45, a mortgage broker. ``It's become an obsolete ideology. What would we get out of it, other than financial problems?''
Quebec separatists, after coming within a percentage point of winning a vote on secession in 1995, are losing favor as demographics, economics and Harper's overtures erode their base. Support for what is called ``sovereignty'' in the French-speaking province was 36 percent last month, compared with almost 50 percent 13 years ago.
``We don't talk about this any more,'' Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, himself born in Quebec, said in an April 23 interview in New York. ``Some of the people on Wall Street have mentioned this to me. The whole Quebec secession issue is gone.''
For Canada, the weakening of separatist sentiment means Harper's Conservatives may win enough of Quebec's 75 districts to form a majority government in elections expected as soon as this year. Harper's party holds 127 of the 308 seats in Canada's parliament and needs opposition help to pass laws.
After Quebec voters rejected a 1980 sovereignty referendum by 3-to-2, they almost approved another 15 years later, winning 49.4 percent of the vote. The movement declined over the next decade, flaring up in 2005 when it was disclosed that ad agencies hired to promote Canada in Quebec got bogus federal contracts in exchange for kickbacks.
Harper, who made his political career in the western province of Alberta before coming to power in 2006, softened sovereignty sentiment by increasing federal transfer payments to the province by 29 percent, to C$20 billion ($19.9 billion) for fiscal 2009. He also promised to stay out of areas such as education and declared Quebec a ``nation,'' key goals of provincial leaders
As a result, the separatist Parti Quebecois won just 34 of the provincial legislature's 125 seats in elections last year, finishing third for the first time since 1970.
The PQ may have sown the seeds of its undoing while in charge by pressuring the federal government into giving the province more autonomy, making Quebec an easier place for French speakers to thrive. Fifty-four percent of Quebec's 7.44 million people speak only French.
``The structural factors that fed the movement and the resentment in the '60s and '70s are gone,'' said Jean-Herman Guay, a political science professor at Sherbrooke University. He cited obstacles the province has overcome: income inequality between French and English speakers, low French representation on corporate boards and English-only service in stores.
In 1970, unilingual English-speaking men in Quebec earned 59 percent more than their French-speaking counterparts and 11 percent more than bilingual Francophones, according to a C.D. Howe Institute study published last year. Thirty years later, the unilingual gap had shrunk to 15 percent; bilingual French speakers earned more than any other group.
Demographics also have played a role. Immigrants from Haiti, China, Lebanon and other nations now make up 12 percent of Quebec's population. About twice as many newcomers arrived from 2001 to 2006 as in the previous five-year period, Canadian census figures show.
Moreover, even as Quebec enjoys a jobless rate of 7.3 percent, near a 33-year low, the slowing U.S. economy has caused closures and layoffs in the province's factories and lumber mills. Voters now see separatism as an unnecessary layer of uncertainty.
``There are problems on the economic front that are bigger issues for people than holding another referendum,'' said Claude Gauthier, vice president of Crop Inc., the research firm that found 36 percent of Quebeckers want to secede. That poll of 1,000 voters was taken from April 17-22 and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Quebec's economy will grow 1.2 percent this year, ``barely'' enough to escape a recession and half the 2.4 percent in 2007, Yves St-Maurice, deputy chief economist at Mouvement Desjardins, said in a March forecast.
Still, political stability may be reassuring investors.
The spread between borrowing costs in Quebec and neighboring Ontario is less than a quarter of what it was in 1995. Quebec's benchmark 30-year bond yielded 14 basis points more than a similar Ontario security on May 6. The difference was 71 points on Oct. 30, 1995, the day of the last referendum.
Quebec's commercial exchanges with the U.S. totaled C$78.8 billion last year, making the province America's eighth-biggest trading partner. The province is the world's fourth-largest hydro-electricity producer.
``Capital flees insecurity, period,'' said Thomas Mulcair, a former Quebec provincial minister who's now a federal New Democratic Party lawmaker. ``Right now, things are looking stable.''
Last month, the Parti Quebecois even dropped a promise to force a third referendum as soon as it returns to power.
``We have some catching up to do when it comes to educating people on the necessity of sovereignty,'' said Francois Gendron, the PQ legislator in charge of the party's day-to-day operations in the Quebec City legislature.
Tremblay, the ex-separatist, is among the 27 percent of Quebeckers who say they'll support Harper in the next election.
``Back when my father worked in a plant, if you wanted to talk to the foreman, you had to do it in English,'' Tremblay said. ``We had damn good reasons to separate. Today, where are the reasons? I don't see them anymore.''
To contact the reporter on this story: Alexandre Deslongchamps in Ottawa at email@example.com
Last Updated: May 8, 2008 00:00 EDT Bloomberg.com: Canada