In Le Devoir, well-known Quebec historian, sociologist and social commentator Gérard Bouchard (the brother of former premier Lucien Bouchard) reflects on the ongoing public inquiry into municipal corruption in Quebec and what it might mean for the future of what he calls the Quebec model. In Bouchard’s view, the Quebec model is exemplified by a search for balance between public welfare and capitalism, something he believes the Quebec state has been enormously successful at maintaining since the 1960s, contributing to the province’s uniqueness within North America. He fears, however, that these corruption scandals in Montreal, Quebec and Laval that have gripped public attention risk introducing a level of cynicism towards public institutions and government that will only aid those who might wish to dismantle the Quebec model and give free rein to neo-liberalism.
Bouchard pins his fears on a rosy assessment of Quebec’s achievements since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s placed the state (the provincial government) at the heart of the social and economic system, while other jurisdictions in North America went down the road of unfettered capitalism. In Quebec, the state retained its powers, and resisted giving them away through privatization. As a result, it remained an active player in the economy and society. Salaries rose for everyone, while the gap between rich and poor remained relatively modest. Unionization remained high, access to higher education tripled, and women gained access to labour markets and salaries virtually equal to those of their male colleagues. Moreover, francophone control of the economy grew. What Bouchard sees as ‘spectacular advances’ were gained under both PQ and Liberal governments, pushed by social activists determined to maintain a third way, characterized by a social economy, community organizations and the cooperative movement, and supported by unions and the women’s movement. In other words, the Quebec model as Bouchard describes it was made by society as a whole for society as a whole. The system made room for capitalism, but prevented or limited its worst excesses, turning the private sector into another engine for public good through entrepreneurialism, creativity and intelligence.
Bouchard admits that his brief survey is incomplete and perhaps overly optimistic, but in the aggregate it describes a series of choices, values and institutions that have set Quebec off as socially, ideologically and structurally (as well as culturally) different from much of anglophone North America. In his view, it is a model that has served Quebecers well, but can only continue to do so if public trust in government is restored and maintained at the same time that corruption is rooted out. If a few bad actors are allowed to erode the search for balance that lies at the heart of the Quebec model, those who would dismantle the system in favour of neoliberalism will take advantage as they have done elsewhere. Whatever one thinks of the Quebec model as Bouchard describes it here, his commentary is insightful for what it suggests about the process involved in the erosion of public space. If American and English Canadian politics over the past decade have made anything clear, it is that the neoliberal assault on the credibility of government itself, on government programs, and the size and expense of government, can be devastatingly effective in times of crisis. Noami Klein calls the strategy ‘disaster capitalism.’ When progressives lose the willingness or ability to ably defend their position, a rump neoliberal right successfully exploits disillusionment to dominate and redefine political discourse and, indeed, politics itself. Presumably, it is this sort of politics Bouchard aims to forestall in Quebec.