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Quebec Premier Francois Legault responds to reporters during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Thursday, April 2, 2020 at the legislature in Quebec City. Mr. Legault’s government on Monday announced a $100-million program that companies can tap to pay workers being trained as well as those training them as they prepare for a return of economic activity.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec is hatching plans to bolster the resiliency of its economy as it eyes a postpandemic world where countries are expected to become more protectionist and the province will need to be more self-sufficient.

Premier François Legault’s government on Monday announced a $100-million program that companies can tap to pay workers being trained as well as those training them as they prepare for a return of economic activity. Companies are eligible to apply for the program until September 30.

“This is the ideal time to do training,” Mr. Legault told reporters in Quebec City, adding many business need to be ready for a significant reorganization of work. “Things will change a lot over coming months.”

Labour Minister Jean Boulet said companies could develop employee skills while being subsidized for their wages, which would “increase their competitiveness. We want companies to be able to prepare to relaunch and avoid any job losses as much as possible.”

As much of the rest of Canada has focused on immediate responses, Quebec has in recent days been talking more about its future once the health crisis subsides. Mr. Legault’s government says it has begun working on plans to increase the province’s self-sufficiency in health care and food, to make sure it has enough locally made medical equipment, medication and other supplies needed to weather a future crisis.

More broadly, Quebec has begun a detailed analysis of its trade balance in an attempt to prepare for a new economic reality once the peak of the global coronavirus pandemic has passed. The Premier is even evoking the possibility of using the province’s plentiful hydro power to warm indoor greenhouses in the winter and grow fruit and vegetables all year round instead of importing them.

“We want to be able to produce more locally,” Mr. Legault said Friday. “We’ll need to think about the entire food chain to ensure that if there were another crisis that we’d be autonomous.”

Quebec’s determination to cement its defences and boost its future economic prospects has already been likened by some commentators to a similar nationalism effort in the 1960s that ushered in the Quiet Revolution.

Not since that time has former Premier Jean Lesage’s campaign slogan “Maître chez nous” (Masters in our own house) become as pertinent as a societal objective, Quebecor media columnist Michel Girard said.

The government is also thinking about the demand side of the equation, trying to stimulate Quebeckers’ appetite for locally-made products in order to cut their reliance on goods made outside its borders.

On Sunday Quebec announced a new non-profit project called Le Panier Bleu (blue basket), which is at the moment a website-accessed inventory of thousands of Quebec companies that provide locally-made products and services. The project is being led by several retail-sector veterans, including former Lowe’s Canada chief executive officer Sylvain Prud’homme.

With three million visits in less than 24 since the website went live and 1,170 businesses listed, the initiative is proving the propensity of Quebeckers to support their own, said Charles de Brabant, executive director of McGill University’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management. He compared the effort to the online marketplace created by China’s Alibaba Group, which has proven to be a major employment generator in that country since its launch in 1999.

For weeks, Quebec has led the country in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 533 people hospitalized and 121 deaths as of Monday. It has also put in place among the continent’s strictest social-distancing measures, extending a shutdown of non-essential businesses to May 4.

About 80 Quebec companies have expressed an ability and willingness to manufacture protective equipment and at least one will be tapped to make masks permanently, said Quebec Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon. The government is also working with pharmaceutical companies in the provinces to make sure Quebeckers’ medication needs can also be met by local producers, he said.

Quebec currently has a $20-billion annual trade deficit, meaning it imports more goods than it exports. The Premier says the gap will probably grow, accelerated by current events, meaning the province has to realign its economy internally.

Quebec’s chief exports by dollar value are aircraft and aircraft engines, aluminum and iron ores. Among its biggest imports are crude oil, light trucks and sport utility vehicles. The United States is by far its biggest trading partner.

“You can imagine that some of our exports will face a bit more protectionism in coming years,” Mr. Legault said. “We’re going to need to figure out how we can help our local entrepreneurs make products that we are currently importing in order to keep our trade balance as even as we can.”

Quebec estimates it has spent $18-billion to fight the pandemic, which includes financial aide for business and the cost of buying medical equipment. The number represents between 4 and 5 per cent of its gross domestic product.

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