Pipeline politics

Energy East flap shows Quebec is still viewed with contempt by many in the rest of Canada

English translation of a column by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois
Photo: Environmental Defence

I sometimes forget the degree to which a large part of English Canada despises Quebec. This week, the reminder was brutal.

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Ever since the mayors of the Montreal region announced their opposition to TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline this week, English Canada has reacted with indignation. Brad Wall, the premier of Saskatchewan, started the ball rolling last week with an incendiary declaration on his Facebook page. Jason Kenney, former federal minister, and Brian Jean, the leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Party, quickly followed suit.

This argument betrays a total misunderstanding of how equalization works.

On Monday, comedian Rick Mercer (who is known for his progressive inclinations) jumped on board in publishing a video with the same arguments: since Quebec receives equalization payments, it must accept the passage of the pipeline through its territory without protest. That’s it, that’s all.

First, this argument betrays a total misunderstanding of how equalization works, as explained by economist Marcelin Joanis, a specialist in the field, on RDI Économie. Equalization payments received by Quebec are not taken from the pockets of Alberta taxpayers, but from the federal government. In short, a significant portion of the funds received in equalization by Quebec come from federal taxes paid... by Quebecers!

Second, the logic pushed by Wall, Mercer, Kenney and company is simply absurd. If we follow their arguments, the provinces that receive equalization payments (that is to say, provinces whose financial capacity puts them below the Canadian average) must not stand in the way of a project that benefits those who receive none (that is to say, provinces whose financial capacity puts them above the Canadian average). Does this mean that half of Confederation must permanently subordinate their best interests to those of the other half?

It’s an utterly ridiculous idea, especially when we consider the extent to which the emergence of the energy sector in Western Canada, resulting in a stronger Canadian dollar, has hurt the manufacturing sector in Quebec and Ontario. In a 2013 study, it was estimated that for every new job created in the petroleum sector during the past decade, 30 have been lost in manufacturing. In Quebec, tens of thousands of (usually well paid) jobs vanished. We could play the compensation game for a long time.

“Eat your gruel and shut your mouth.”

Third, and more fundamentally, these statements (widely circulated on social media) vividly testify to the persistence of a feeling of contempt and superiority over Quebec in the rest of Canada. When Ontario, which also receives equalization payments, announces its position on Energy East you can bet no one will accuse it of living off the coattails of Alberta. This catchphrase, history has shown, is reserved for Quebecers: “eat your gruel and shut your mouth.”

If many politicians and prominent Canadians like to rap Quebec on the knuckles, it is simply because doing so is politically profitable. And if it is politically profitable, it is because for many Canadians we are neither “partners” nor “compatriots,” but annoying neighbours who always talk too much and are never happy. The irony, in this story, is that the majority of Quebecers do not seem to realize that this is how we are seen.

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