Philippe Couillard, the Premier of Quebec, delivered a serious speech to the Ontario Legislature this week. The best the two Ontario opposition party leaders could do while responding to the Quebec guest's speech was to launch partisan arrows at Kathleen Wynne's government.
Talk about tasteless. For their performances, Andrea Horwath of the NDP and Patrick Brown, the newly minted Progressive Conservative Leader, are co-winners of the classless-boob-of the-week (month?) award. If these two can't rise from partisan politics on such an occasion, neither of them deserves to be the premier of Ontario.
Mr. Couillard, a staunch federalist, delivered the first speech by a Quebec premier in the Ontario Legislature since 1964, an event Montreal's La Presse newspaper found of such little interest that it avoided reporting on.
La Presse's neglect aside, Mr. Couillard's appearance at Queen's Park was an important occasion, practically and symbolically.
In practical terms, he and Ms. Wynne signed a deal as if they were leaders of two countries, opening up contracting in Quebec and Ontario to companies from both provinces.
This kind of arrangement ought to be the law throughout Canada, but provinces have erected in this strange federation plenty of barriers to trade and contracting. That the two premiers said this Quebec-Ontario deal would offer the same access to their markets as European companies will enjoy under the Canada-European Union trade and investment deal spoke volumes about the previous fettering of internal trade in Central Canada.
Symbolically, Mr. Couillard's visit was noteworthy because he came as a genuine friend of Ontario and of Canada. He wants and is working toward Quebec being an active partner in Confederation, as opposed to a prickly one.
Soon after being elected, Mr. Couillard quietly began asking how Quebec could improve (repair) relations with neighbouring provinces. These relations had worsened over time, partly because Parti Québécois governments cared little for the rest of Canada, partly because other provincial governments could hardly warm to a government committed to breaking up Canada and partly from files gone wrong.
Newfoundland still stews about Hydro-Québec's dealings over Labrador power. New Brunswick rejected a proposal from Hydro-Québec to take over NB Power. Relations with Ontario were pro forma correct, but little more.
The idea that maybe Quebec and Ontario, Canada's two largest provinces, should work together in the self-interest of both seemed a foreign concept. The most obvious potential synergy between them – hydroelectric power – was neglected when, decades ago, Ontario decided to go nuclear and Quebec began shipping its vast hydro surplus to the United States.
Ontario is now saddled with Candu reactors that will cost a huge amount to refurbish. Worse, Candu technology has lost its lustre around the world. Ontario has sunk too much into its nuclear industry, and the Power Workers' Union is too powerful, for the government to turn its back on refurbishment.
Happily, discussions are ongoing between Ontario and Quebec about increasing imports of Quebec hydroelectricity into Ontario. Some links are already being built into Eastern Ontario; others might follow.
Speaking of links, a high-speed train in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor has been studied to death and buried every time as uneconomical. As long as both provincial governments and Ottawa are unwilling to think very big, the project will remain stillborn, and Via Rail will clunk along the corridor doing the best it can on tracks it does not own.
With the economies of both provinces in the doldrums, working fruitfully together seems a no-brainer. Or so it seems to Mr. Couillard and Ms. Wynne.
So does working together on combatting climate change, with Ontario agreeing to join the cap-and-trade scheme between California and Quebec. This scheme promises more than it will likely deliver, since only three jurisdictions will participate.
Certain industries will lobby to be exempted. That lobbying, if successful, will water down cap-and-trade's potential effectiveness. Nonetheless, at least the two governments are mutually supportive of efforts to go beyond the federal Conservatives' policies.
Naturally, Mr. Couillard insists, as he did at the Ontario Legislature, on Quebec's distinctiveness. Some day, he remarked, Quebec's specific character should be recognized in the Canadian Constitution, but he isn't pushing for that any time soon.
Like all Quebec premiers, Mr. Couillard emphasized respect for provincial sovereignty, but this message was likely directed more at his home audience than Ottawa, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been generally quite respectful of provincial sovereignty.
Mr. Couillard spoke well and constructively. Too bad the Ontario opposition party leaders couldn't resist their base partisan instincts.