Creating wealth. The slogan figures so prominently in the programs of the political parties that vie to form the next Quebec government it has become a cliché. And yet when personal wealth is concerned, this is a taboo of Olympic Stadium proportions.
Any newcomer to Quebec could be forgiven for thinking that being rich is a flaw in character, and not a possible sign of success. The leaders of the main parties have spent almost as much time circumventing questions about their net worth as they have discussing economic policy.
There are historical reasons for the prudishness Quebeckers exhibit towards money. What is dumbfounding, however, is that this well-documented uneasiness persists to this day.
When the British conquered New France in 1760, the defeated French found refuge with the Catholic Church, which protected their language and social institutions. This is how the clergy came to exert a profound influence over the work and life of French-Canadians in Quebec.
The English conquerors were led by educated, rich merchants, while the defeated French were poor and uneducated for the most part. Hence the mistaken association, in the collective psyche, that money was dirty.
The Catholic Church pushed Quebeckers towards liberal professions, encouraging the most brilliant minds to become doctors, lawyers, and priests. They didn’t praise entrepreneurs nor laud business ventures. And if a Quebecker somehow amassed a small fortune, that person had likely done something wrong, or so the suspicion went.
With the 1960s Quiet Revolution, many Quebeckers threw their bibles out the window, transforming a deeply pious society into a fiercely secular one in the historical equivalent of a heartbeat. And yet the values that suffused Quebec society, such as its egalitarianism, have proved enduring.
Testament to this is the controversy surrounding the income statements of party leaders in recent days. Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard was one of the first to come public at the request of Montreal newspaper La Presse. He earned close to $202,000 in 2012, while his assets were valued at around $667,000 at the end of last year. He also disclosed, as a bonus, his partner’s net worth of about $657,000 in a not-so-subtle attempt to turn the pressure on Premier Pauline Marois.
Ms. Marois, who at first refused to submit to the request, finally disclosed her 2012 income statement in the minutes preceding the TVA televised debate to defuse attacks on transparency. But her assets and her husband’s financial records were kept a secret, and this was no surprise. Businessman Claude Blanchet made a fortune in real estate working alongside Robert Campeau. He headed such Quebec Inc. institutions as the labour sponsored Fonds de Solidarité de la FTQ and the government controlled Société générale de Financement. The couple’s recent move, from their sprawling L’Île-Bizard domain, sold for $6.5-million with the adjoining stables and pool house, to a $2.5-million apartment in Old-Montreal, made headlines last year.
Ms. Marois has been trying to shake her lady of the manor image. The PQ leader once sported flashy costumes, sparkly jewels and an impressive collection of pumps that led people to compare her to Tintin’s Castafiore. But in the past two campaigns, she had toned-down her outfits in a sober makeover. To twist one of Molière’s most famous verses in his play Tartuffe, “conceal that fortune I am not prepared to see.”
If Mr. Couillard tried to put the wealthy Ms. Marois on the spot, his efforts backfired when Radio-Canada revealed he held a bank account in the European tax haven of Jersey in the early 1990s. Mr. Couillard was working as a surgeon in Saudi Arabia at the time.
There was nothing illegal with the account – it is even a customary resort while working in an Islamic country with no interest-bearing accounts. But in one of the nastiest Quebec campaigns in memory, his opponents have had a field day, hinting at a possible tax evasion and complicity with the Saudi regime. Even if Mr. Couillard was totally in his right, they know how the image of the rich doctor working overseas and banking in Jersey plays out.
Television network Télé-Québec aired as recently as January a series of documentaries on Quebeckers’ ambiguous relationship with money. It was not surprising to hear pharmacist Jean Coutu, 86, talk of the days when Quebeckers believed that if a businessman was successful, he must have made his money on his employees’ backs. But even Eric Boyko, CEO of Stingray Digital Media Group, in his early forties, recalled how his mother frowned not too long ago on the dot-com venture that made him a millionaire.
Quebec multinationals such as Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., CGI Group Inc. and Saputo Inc. are enriching their leaders and shareholders. And yet Quebeckers remain uneasy with personal fortunes. In fact, their mistrust in money is still so ingrained it could appear in the Quebec Charter of Values.