Help protect Quebec’s identity. Send money
By Tasha Kheiriddin
When landing at the Quebec City airport this time of year, a heart-stopping tapestry comes into view: limitless acres of leafy trees aflame in red, orange and yellow, punctuated by swaths of dark green pines. The stunning display of natural beauty reminds you that there is more to la belle province than a controversial Maclean’s cover, the Bastarache Commission, and the popularity rating of the provincial government.
Then you drive into town, and poof! The pretty tableau instantly dissolves in a sea of petty politics.
I paid a visit to the Capitale Nationale this past weekend to participate in a Radio-Canada debate about whether Quebec City should get a publicly-funded hockey arena. Guests included the mayor, Regis Labeaume, federal Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Josée Verner (sans Nordiques jersey), a trio of hockey legends (the famed Stastny brothers), and a host of other individuals, both for and against.
The program took place in a shopping centre, in front of a live audience. Needless to say, the crowd was more than a little supportive of public funding: on several occasions, opposing points of view (especially those representing, uh, English Canada) were roundly booed. But it was the statements of Mayor Labeaume which best illustrated the perverse logic at work in this debate, and in entitlement societies in general.
When asked why the private sector wouldn’t build an arena, Mr. Labeaume admitted, without apology “Ce n’est pas rentable.” (It’s not profitable). But, he went on to say, the arena is something everyone agrees on, “Ils le veulent” (the people want it) – and so the government should give it to them.
Hmm. Actually, the Quebec people want many things. These include hospitals without an average 24-hour emergency room wait, or high schools without an average 30% dropout rate. But those seem to take a back seat to bread and circuses these days, especially when Premier Jean Charest’s latest approval rating stagnates at 25%. What’s 175 million in provincial tax dollars for a new colisee, complete with moat, but missing a tenant?
Mr. Labeaume is right about one thing: the people of Quebec City, or at least 50,000 of them, do want the arena, if it means the return of their beloved Nordiques. They marched on Saturday, decked out in team regalia and blue facepaint. Their team may have left town 15 years ago, but memories of hockey glory are impressively long.
Ironically, just six months earlier, the capital’s streets played host to another mass demonstration, this one protesting the provincial government’s 2010 budget. Roughly 50,000 demonstrators demanded that the government clean up its own spending before imposing new taxes, including a health user fee (since dropped), a new health “contribution” (still on the table), and a 15% Harmonized Sales Tax (coming in 2012).
How to square this circle? In the same year that the so-called “silent majority” of Quebec City residents protested over-taxation, an equal number came out to call for public funding of a hockey arena. Where do they think the money will come from, if not their taxes?
But this is the paradox of the entitlement society. Everyone wants their “due”, but nobody wants to pay for it. Health care is “free”, daycare is cheap, and the state siphons over 50% of your income. Is it any surprise that people think the government has the means to build sports facilities?
Since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960’s, Quebec has embraced statism and reverence for government to a greater degree than the rest of Canada. When a recent Maclean’s article posited a link between this fact and Quebec’s level of political corruption, Premier Jean Charest retorted that the larger role of the state is actually a defence, which protects minority French Canadians from being swamped by Anglo North America.
Naturally, if the state is seen as a protector of their identity, citizens are more likely to turn to government to solve their problems. Conversely, the private sector becomes suspect, because it is not working for the “common good”. Private wealth should be taxed away and redistributed, lest its influence grow too great.
This became evident in Friday night’s debate over the hockey arena. One participant argued that no private money should be used, because then the city would lose “control” over the arena, and it would only serve corporate interests. He did not see fit to mention that the private sector is the generator of all those dollars the government would have to tax away, to build, manage and maintain the structure.
Like those lovely fall trees, the prospect of a second NHL team provides a temporary distraction from Quebec’s economic and political woes. But when the leaves are gone, and winter winds howl down city streets, Quebecers should remember that those problems will remain unresolved – whether the Nordiques come home to a new arena, or not.