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Illustration of Nicolas Marceau, Finance Minister of Quebec. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Nicolas Marceau, Finance Minister of Quebec. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau: When compromise is the main course Add to ...

“It was quite a spectacle,” he recounts.

Yet Mr. Marceau did not grow up in a bourgeois Haute-Ville neighbourhood. His parents split up when he was a toddler and he was raised with his sister at his mother’s house in LeMoyne, a small blue-collar community on the South Shore of Montreal. Not much of a jock, the teenager played the drums in a garage band that did covers of Rush and Jethro Tull.

Our paths crossed when he attended university. At the Sainte-Hélène Island municipal pool, we worked side by side, tending lockers, mopping floors and honing our Hacky Sack skills. While I spent two summers there, he spent four: “I thought I would never get out of there,” he recalls. Mr. Marceau finally landed a job in the internal audit department of a financial trust owned by the life insurer Les Coopérants. That summer job remains his only experience in the financial sector.

Economic policy, Quebec politics, French cinema and student affairs were hotly debated by the pool workers. Mr. Marceau himself had been engaged in the student movement in college, where he met with ANEQ student association members, whose modern-day descendants would be the most militant “red squares.”

“I went into student politics to change education through such things as teacher evaluations,” he says. “But they were in a proletarian revolution against a bourgeois class associated to a repressive state. This was a shock to me. I wasn’t in a world of revolution, nor will I ever be.”

This pragmatic outlook still puts Mr. Marceau at odds with some of Ms. Marois’ more militant cabinet members. But while Mr. Marceau may look unimposing with his boyish figure that sometimes looks lost in a business suit, he has “character,” as one cabinet minister puts it.

“He won’t let anyone step on his toes,” the minister adds. “And that has helped him establish his authority.”

If Mr. Marceau has revisited a number of the PQ’s pledges, there is one promise he will never compromise on: “Eliminating Quebec’s deficit is non-negotiable,” he says. “People live on the illusion that if you put it off, it will somehow be more easy to achieve this down the road, while it is the exact opposite.”

But that message is lost on the PQ’s traditional social-democratic allies, who are angry at budget cuts that mean government spending will grow by a lowly 1.9 per cent. Even Ms. Marois, who publicly evoked the possibility in a TV interview of waiting a little longer before balancing the province’s books, appears to have wavered when confronted with her government’s falling popularity. But Mr. Marceau denies that the two don’t see things eye-to-eye.

This is the message that Mr. Marceau delivered to American credit rating agencies and financial institutions when he discreetly flew to New York in April to reassure them of Quebec’s determination to pay off its debts. “I am perfectly at ease with the fact that Quebec offers very generous public services to its citizens,” he says. “But in return, we must pay for them. This is not something you can shovel forward to future generations.”

And for now, the unassuming Mr. Marceau is holding his ground.

CURRICULUM VITAE

BACKGROUND

Born June 23, 1964, in Montreal.

Family: Partner Teresa Moraga, daughters Jeanne, Valérie, Rachel and Madeleine.

EDUCATION

Holds bachelor and master of science degrees in economics from the University of Montreal and a doctorate in economics from Queen’s University.

The four articles in his thesis were written under the supervision of Robyn Boadway, one of the foremost experts in fiscal federalism. One of them asked whether unemployment insurance was the best way to redistribute wealth.

CAREER

Economics professor at Laval University (1992-96) and the Université du Québec à Montréal (1996-2009).

Published 29 articles on public economic policy in journals such as American Economic Review.

ACCOLADES

Five-time winner of UQAM’s teaching award.

Co-recipient in 2002 of the Harry Johnson Prize for best article published in the Canadian Journal of Economics.

HOBBIES

Loves music, from rock to jazz. Prefers to buy CDs than songs on iTunes because of the photos and lyrics on the sleeve.

Runs when he finds time.

VERBATIM

On the Charbonneau Commission on corruption: “I find it incredibly difficult to watch. It’s an awful spectacle. It’s worst than our worst suspicions.”

On Quebec’s scandal-plagued engineering firms: “The companies that participated in a system, they still have a right to exist and to prosper. They employ thousands of people. It’s out of the question to let them fall.”

On the federal Conservatives: “Historically, they favoured a much more supple and asymmetric federalism than the liberals, but nowadays, they are prone to meddling.”

On being a politician: “I want to say the truth and I speak my mind. But some reporters are really good at putting banana peels in front of you. I would rather avoid a sensitive topic altogether than to use doublespeak.”

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