Facing antagonism, Quebec business leaders seek to elevate debate

24 sept. 2012

The separatist Parti Québécois won a minority government with 32% popular support, pledging to protect Quebec’s corporate jewels against foreign takeovers and to raise taxes for the rich. The irony is that every time it talks about its raison d’être — taking Quebec out of Canada — its polling numbers plunge.

None of the three main parties — federalist Liberal Party of Quebec, the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec or the PQ — received a ringing endorsement. It’s as if Quebecers decided that no one was worthy of governing with a strong hand, that no one articulated a credible and inspiring collective vision for the province that rose above tired constitutional debates and questionable remedies to improve their lives.

And yet, there is no shortage of business leaders thinking about Quebec’s future.

Facing nearly unprecedented antagonism and the perception among many young Quebecers that businessmen are enriching themselves while exploiting society, a handful of corporate leaders such as Marc Dutil, chief executive of structural steel-products maker Canam Group Inc., are speaking out for the first time in recent memory. Their ideas go well beyond the predictable defensiveness and sovereignty-bashing you might expect.

“Independence is a state of mind,” Mr. Dutil said in an interview shortly after the Sept. 4 election at the private school for entrepreneurs he founded in Saint-Georges de Beauce. “It’s not a legal status. And it’s the search for that state of mind that we should be aspiring to…. Let’s stop screaming for little pieces of paper [that state we’re a sovereign nation] and focus on acting to take matters into our own hands.”

There is an urgency to Mr. Dutil’s words, one bred from being a descendant in a line of successful entrepreneurs and politicians. Mr. Dutil’s grandfather started Canam from scratch. His great-grandfather, Édouard Lacroix, was a highly influential lumberman and federal MP.

These are not people who spent their lives sitting around waiting for government handouts. As with other well-known natives of the Beauce valley, a relatively isolated region in eastern Quebec that straddles the Maine border, they built businesses out of necessity and helped knit their communities. Rémi Marcoux, founder and controlling shareholder of Transcontinental Inc., and Placide Poulin, founder of bathroom products maker Maax, are among the notable business tycoons the region has produced.

There are no big mines or mills here to fuel employment, no natural mineral wealth or tourist attractions to lean on. Dairy farms were too small, historically, to provide jobs for everyone. But the citizens of Beauce found other ways to make a living. And they built their autonomy.

“What scares me is that there are a lot of people in Quebec who believe that their prosperity depends on the decision-making of people in politics,” Mr. Dutil said, noting the provincial government occupies a significant place in the economy. “When you project onto someone else the reason why you’re prosperous or not, you never take responsibility.”

You don’t have to look far to illustrate his point.

Ms. Marois’s government has been in power barely 48 hours and already it has announced it will put nuclear power on ice by shutting down the province’s only nuclear generating station — Gentilly-2. That provoked a predictable reaction Friday by union leaders representing 800 workers there as well as residents of the Mauricie region, who voiced concern the $200-million set aside by the government to help diversify the local economy after the shutdown would not be enough.

Similar scenes have played out elsewhere and with other leaders.

Montrealers accused former Liberal premier Jean Charest of favouring communities in the province’s north with his $80-billion plan to develop the territory at the expense of southern Quebec. Critics also blasted his government for committing $200-million for a new hockey arena in Quebec City when other towns were clamouring for public money.

Demands on the public treasury are multiplying while Quebec’s economy is sputtering.

The province’s gross domestic product grew by a paltry 1% in the first quarter and may have contracted over the following three months, Desjardins Capital Markets strategist Jimmy Jean wrote in a Sept. 20 report.

Exports are down. Consumer morale remains downbeat, “depressed in particular by a combination of heavier tax burden and higher gasoline prices,” Mr. Jean said. He expects Quebec will post 1% growth this year, half the Canadian average, and 1.8% in 2013.

Former premier Lucien Bouchard, who brought Quebec closer to separation than anyone else, says Quebecers remain caught in a kind of tentative mental and emotional limbo following two failed referendums that has a profound effect on their identity and resolve. Mr. Bouchard, who has turned his own energies to working for oil and gas development in Quebec, says most Quebecers are no longer interested in the independence project, calling it a spent force like unionization and church power. Still, he argues that nothing has yet emerged as a rallying point to take its place.

In an interview with L’Actualité magazine published this month, Mr. Bouchard says that public reaction to a comment he made on Quebecers’ work habits — that they work less than Ontarians and Americans — was particularly revealing.

“What struck me was the denial that statement provoked,” he told L’Actualité. “[The comment was] backed up by numbers. Still, people were rejecting statistics that were indisputable. It tells me a lot about the mentality of Quebecers today, which I think is a bit cautious. People panic fast. They’re scared of everything. There isn’t really any collective target or societal project, no deep motivation. That’s one of the negative effects of a failed referendum. A failed referendum leaves its marks.”

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