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A woman with a fleur-de-lis and Quebec flag drawn on her face shouts as she marches through the streets with protesters banging pots and pans during a demonstration in support of striking Quebec students in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 30, 2012. Students in Quebec have been protesting proposed tuition hikes since February. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A woman with a fleur-de-lis and Quebec flag drawn on her face shouts as she marches through the streets with protesters banging pots and pans during a demonstration in support of striking Quebec students in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 30, 2012. Students in Quebec have been protesting proposed tuition hikes since February. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

POLITICS

Age collides with politics in today's fractured Quebec Add to ...

Sitting on a stool at Caffe della Via, a hip student hangout on the fringes of Montreal’s fast-gentrifying Petite Italie, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is remarkably composed.

Although he leads Quebec’s most radical student activists – known by the acronym CLASSE – he’s no scruffy agitator or starry-eyed dreamer. A study in Gallic elegance, the 22-year-old is poised, articulate, groomed to an almost preppy shine. The only outward sign of his militancy is a red square, a symbol of the student protests he’s sparked, pinned to his shirt.

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And make no mistake. Whatever his personal style, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is out to upend the existing order. Earlier this spring, he mobilized thousands of students and sympathizers to fight a proposed tuition hike and take to the streets.

The results included an effective shut-down of the province’s French-language colleges and universities (a full school term was lost). The sometimes violent protests also led Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government to adopt unprecedented legislation to control the demonstrations – largely in vain. Just this week, the 100th nighttime march by activists led to the arrest of 17 people.

The students have had a broader impact as well: What started as a campus backlash soon ballooned into an all-out rebellion against a government that was perceived as favouring the rich – and jolted Quebec out of a longstanding political torpor. No one following the student cause could be indifferent. Suddenly, there was a revival of passionate debate about the future of the province not seen since the last sovereignty referendum in 1995.

If debate is healthy, it’s also messy: The student protests have spurred new discussions about what “our Quebec” should look like. It’s also revealed how splintered the answer to that question has become. Canadians may think of Quebec as a province with a strong collective identity – perhaps at times a herd mentality – but that group affiliation has been fractured.

Old regional and partisan divisions still exist. What’s new? Conflict along generational lines. In today’s Quebec, age is becoming a reliable (if imperfect) indicator of politics.

My work has taken me out of Quebec, my adopted home, in recent years. But I return regularly to Quebec. And each time I land in Montreal, I am struck by the stubborn signs of stasis.

Despite a rich architectural heritage, parts of the city seem to be in shambles; wire mesh runs along the sides and bottoms of freeway overpasses, lest a chunk of concrete break loose and annihilate drivers below. And while Quebeckers are among the world’s earliest adopters of new technologies, there’s no sense here of a place on the move.

There is a reason for this “time warp” feeling: Quebec’s share of the Canadian population and economy has been shrinking for decades. Its debt is now equal to 55 per cent of its gross domestic product, by far the highest in Canada. A reduction in federal transfer payments, a possibility when the current equalization formula expires in 2014, would be catastrophic for its finances.

Martin Coiteux, a professor at Montreal’s École des Hautes Études Commerciales business school, calculates that an independent Quebec (assuming its share of accumulated federal borrowing) would have a debt burden in between those of Italy and Portugal, two of Europe’s biggest basket cases.

“Quebec has experienced a relative decline since the 1960s,” says Prof. Coiteux. “There is a blatant lack of economic dynamism in Quebec. We are still in the club of have-not provinces. That Ontario has joined us there is not much of a consolation.”

Frustration over Quebec’s economic status is not new.

In 2005, a dozen influential Quebeckers led by former Premier Lucien Bouchard – known as “les lucides” – created a manifesto calling for urgent action to tackle the province’s spiralling debt and demographic decline. From there, the then-fledgling Action Démocratique du Québec took up the mantle.

But by the time the 2007 provincial election rolled around, the ADQ under Mario Dumont embraced an anti-immigration platform, playing down its proposed economic reforms. They succeeded in winning 41 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats, becoming the official opposition and reducing the Liberals to a minority government.

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