Brian Lee Crowley

What Fearful Symmetry means for Canada and Quebec


A talk by author Brian Lee Crowley At a breakfast put on by l’Idée fédérale Montreal, 27 October 2009


Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you to André Pratte and L’Idée fédérale for inviting me to speak to you this morning and for doing me the honour of using the occasion of my talk to launch the organisation’s new website: Thank you as well for getting up so early to hear me talk about my new book, Fearful Symmetry: the fall and rise of Canada’s founding values. Let me start my remarks this morning with a brief overview of the book’s argument before turning to some of the criticisms that have been levelled against the book, particularly here in Quebec.

The argument summarised: Quebec’s bargaining power within Confederation was hugely enhanced by the emergence of the Boomer generation. Not only did QC have the largest Boom in the country, but crucially their access to private sector jobs was severely restricted by the language barrier. The first response this triggered was from the Quebec government in the form of the Quiet Revolution, which vastly expanded public sector employment. Quickly the rising generation began to see their economic and social future as being inextricably bound up, not just with QC as a society, but with the QC *state*. This helped to trigger the rise of a separatist QC nationalism.

A frightened Ottawa thus rolled out the second phase of the political fall-out, as it began to realise that it had to get in the game of accommodating the rising French-speaking generation within the public sector. Thus was unleashed the Bidding War; the two governments essentially spent the ensuing 40 years trying to outbid each other for the loyalty of young French-speakers. This drove a vast expansion of government within a very short period of time, triggering not just the expansion of transfers to individuals and gov’ts, but also public employment, subsidies to business, growing debt and much more.

Because of the logic of federalism, the vast expansion of government was not limited to QC, but was certainly more heavily concentrated there than elsewhere. By grossing up the size of the state, the Bidding War made it far easier in QC than most of the rest of the country to live off the state, and we thereby created many of the pathologies associated with high degrees of government dependence: declining work ethic, low economic growth, damaged families, falling fertility, low productivity, aggressive interest groups, and low in-migration and high out-migration (the latter two signifying low levels of economic opportunity, among other things). Quebec has been falling progressively behind Canada to the west of the Ottawa River, and the so-called Quebec model of economic development allied with the bidding war and the struggles over language — what we might loosely call ‘the distinct society » — have actually begun to squeeze the life out of Quebec society.

Unless there is a huge change of direction within Quebec society, therefore, the future will have as a central feature a continuing relative economic and population decline in Quebec (along with much of Atlantic Canada) compared to the country west of the Ottawa River, and therefore an increasing appetite for transfers. Quebec’s bargaining power, however, is in serious decline. The province’s economy has been so badly damaged by the bidding war, and its population ageing will be so pronounced, that the credibility of a claim to be able to go it alone is now risible. No serious person can now think that QC can become an independent country without a devastating fall in its standard of living.

Moreover the relative population and economic shifts are strengthening Canada west of the Ottawa. By 2031, StatsCan projects that the populations of BC, Alta and Ont together will, on any plausible scenario, represent no less than 2/3 of the population of Canada and rising, while QC will at best be around 21% and falling. Any party that can win 3/4 of the seats in those three provinces to the west will be able to form a majority government.

Meanwhile, the labour shortages that will have the country by the throat (as Boomers retire) will mean that Canadians will be increasingly resistant to funding massive transfers to parts of the country that are mired in dependence, low productivity and low participation in the labour force. Everyone who wants a job will be able to get one, and therefore any person capable of working who is without a job will be considered by voters to be voluntarily unemployed and therefore undeserving of taxpayer support. Transfers will be less generous, quickly revealing the rotten underpinnings of the Quebec economy hitherto veiled by those same transfers.

Playing the separatist card will only further alienate voters in the ROC who will find the threat increasingly incredible. And because the Bidding War will be passé, Ottawa will find it less and less necessary to use its spending power to make its presence felt in social policy, especially in QC. That opens the door to a good solution: Ottawa will cede jurisdiction over a lot of social policy, and cede the tax room it uses to finance that spending to the provinces. In return, Ottawa will demand that the provinces get out of national economic management and especially out of the trade barrier game. Ottawa will seize the power to tear down economic barriers between Canadians, while leaving the provinces free to order social policy largely as they like. Interestingly, on any plain reading of the BNA Act, this was to have been the deal that we originally struck in 1867. Back to the future, as they say.

Before turning to the question period, it might be a good time now to respond to some of the criticism that has been directed at Fearful Symmetry, particularly here in Quebec.

Criticism #1: Growth in government was simply a ubiquitous western phenomenon and it is wrong to attribute its growth in Canada to indigenous factors.

This would be a fair criticism, if it were true. But of course it isn’t. Indeed I spent an important part of the book tracing the growth of government spending in Canada, comparing it to our counterparts in the US (with whom we shared almost identical patterns of government growth for over a century, until the 1960s), and demonstrating that there were in fact two “camps” among Western industrialised societies. One was essentially the US, Canada and Australia, the other was much of Western Europe. The first group proved remarkably more resistant to the growth of government than the latter. But Canada in the Sixties and Seventies essentially changed teams. After a century of following in America’s footsteps, we suddenly and brutally changed camps. Over the ensuing few decades, America’s share of GDP devoted to government rose 6 percentage points. Ours rose over 20. As I say in the book, the zeitgeist in favour of larger government no doubt explains part of the growth in Canada. But it is the speed and size of the change over such a short period, that requires supplementary explanation in Canada, especially since the political class remained committed to small and limited government right up until the early 1960s, as I again show in the book.

Criticism # 2: A separatist Quebec nationalism only emerged in the 1970s not the 60s.

The people making this argument clearly must have lived through a very different history than I did. The Sixties were a time of radical nationalist ferment that was frightening the life out of the political class in Ottawa and the rest of Canada. The B&B Commission was named in response. The PQ was formed in the late Sixties from the merger of two other separatist political parties that had been agitating for some time. This was the time that mailboxes were blowing up in Montreal and the FLQ was issuing manifestos. Jean Lesage won the 1960s election on a platform of Maîtres chez nous, and Daniel Johnson won the 1966 election on the slogan of Égalité ou indépendence. The federal Liberal Party went and recruited les trois sages (Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier) in the mid-Sixties as an attempt to strengthen their response and Trudeau was clearly made leader of the party because he was seen as the man able to respond forcefully to what was happening in Quebec, as indeed he did in the FLQ crisis in 1970.

It is historical revisionism pure and simple to say that because the PQ only made its entrée into the National Assembly in 1970 with a quarter of the vote or because the first referendum only occurred in the late Seventies (with half of French-speakers voting to give the government a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association) that therefore nothing had happened in the decade preceding or that politicians in Quebec City and Ottawa were not already responding to the rise of a separatist nationalism in the province.

Criticism #3: Quebec was not home to the kind of small-l liberal values that I attribute to Canada in the period before the 1960s. Instead it was dominated by the Church and conservative rural values.

Well this counter-interpretation of Quebec’s history really demands a response, if for no other reason than it repeats a number of tired old myths that recent Quebec historians have firmly placed in the dustbin of history.

One pair of critics, Jean-Luc Migué and Gérard Bélanger wrote in Le Devoir, “Before 1960, our social conscience owed much more to the rules laid down by our authoritarian Church than — contrary to Crowley’s assertions — to a commitment to limited government and the rule of law. For most of our history we lived, first, under the “ancien régime” and thereafter as a rural minority.”

The authors thus repeat the myth of the “grande noirceur” (Great Darkness), according to which, prior to the Quiet Revolution, French-Canadian society was essentially a backward, feudal, rural and economically underdeveloped society living under the thumb of the clergy.

This myth has mostly been propagated by self-serving non-historians who wished to blacken Quebec’s past once they became dominant politically in the Sixties, so that they could cast themselves in the light of saviours of Quebec from its benighted rurality. This suspect account is now repeated widely by other non-historians (such as Migué and Bélanger) who really ought to know better by now. There is no denying that there is an important debate about whether or not the Quiet Revolution in fact constitutes a radical break or “rupture” in Quebec’s history. On the other hand, to my knowledge, no serious Quebec historian today subscribes to this kind of account of the allegedly wretched and pitiful state of Quebec society before 1960.

One wonders if the authors haven’t quite simply got their societies mixed up when they talk about French-Canada as a « rural minority ». French-Canadians have never been even close to being a minority in Quebec at any point in Canadian history, while the statistics concerning urbanization and industrialization paint a completely different portrait than the one presented by Migué and Bélanger.

According to the Université de Montréal historian Professor Jacques Rouillard,

« L’image voulant que les Franco-Québécois accusent un retard dans leur mobilité vers les villes et qu’ils aient boudé les emplois industriels ne correspond pas à la réalité quand on compare les indicateurs pertinents à ceux du reste de l’Amérique du Nord et d’autres pays industrialisés. Leur rythme d’urbanisation et d’insertion dans l’activité industrielle se compare à celui d’autres sociétés hautement industrialisées. »

What about the belief in the principles of economic liberalism in Quebec society before 1960, or what Migué and Bélanger are referring to when they reject my contention that the ideas of limited government and the rule of law were guiding principles at the time?

In his book on the economic history of Quebec, Professor Robert Armstrong of McGill University wrote,

Throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century, the government of Quebec occupied a unique position among provincial governments in Canada. Provincial government intervention in the regional economy lagged behind all of the other provinces; the Quebec government practiced the strongest of laissez-faire strategies.

The historian Fernande Roy, in her book on the history of ideologies in Quebec, explains the extent to which values such as private property and individual liberty found fertile soil in Quebec. She writes,

« Ce credo libéral est largement répandu dans la société québécoise de l’époque, bien au-delà des milieux d’affaires. (…) C’est bien à tort que l’on a voulu restreindre l’adhésion à ce type d’idéaux à la seule communauté anglophone. On a abusivement attribué à tous les Canadiens français le point de vue des ultramontains qui, bien sûr, endossent alors une autre échelle de valeurs. »

Just a few weeks ago, Le Devoir published an interview with Éric Bédard regarding his latest book, devoted to the “reformers” of 19th century Quebec, people such as Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, Étienne Parent, Pierre Joseph-Olivier Chauveau, François-Xavier Garneau and others. Mr Bédard is one of the many historians who rejects the suggestion that Quebeckers lived through a “grande noirceur” in the years prior to 1960.

These reformers were powerful and remarkable personages who contributed mightily to Quebec’s progress and development. Nor should we forget the “rouges”, an even more radical group of reformers whose focal point was l’Institut canadien. To reduce the ideological ferment and diversity of this period to a blind adherence to the “rules of our authoritarian Church” is nothing more than a caricature with no basis in the historical record.

I am all the more mystified by the assertions of MM. Migué and Bélanger because Jean-Luc Migué knows better : in a book he published a decade ago, he contradicts the assertions he makes today and instead adopts a line completely in accordance with the one I defend in Fearful Symmetry. In particular he draws a portrait of a traditionally liberal Quebec society which was developing rapidly until the fateful moment when, in the 1960s, the province abandoned its commitment to freedom and the rule of law in favour of an unhealthy reliance on the state. In his Étatisme et déclin du Québec : Bilan de la Révolution tranquille, Migué wrote,

« De toute son histoire moderne, depuis la fin du XIXe siècle jusqu’à la fin des années 60, le Québec a vécu une croissance forte, parallèle à celle de l’Ontario. (…) La période immédiatement antérieure à la Révolution tranquille, allant de 1935 à 1955 et qui coïncide avec l’apogée du duplessisme, se distingue même comme l’une des plus prospères de toute l’histoire: taux de croissance de la production industrielle de 10,2% par année, supérieur à ceux du Canada et de l’Ontario, eux-mêmes particulièrement vibrants à 10,0% et 9,6% respectivement. Entre 1946 et 1958, le revenu personnel par habitant au Québec progressait de plus de cinq pour cent par année et gagnait aussi sur celui de l’Ontario et du Canada en général. (…) »

And how does Migué explain this economic dynamism? He attributes it to the fact that “the political authorities of the time applied to their work the first principle of the Hippocratic oath : Do no harm.” In other words, this economic success was due to an adherence to economic freedom, limited government and the rule of law!

The unjustified blackening of Quebec’s past before 1960 has for half a century reinforced the policies that, as I explain in Fearful Symmetry, have deeply and unnecessarily damaged Quebec society. It is more than time that Quebeckers read their historians and that they reconcile themselves with their unjustly vilified past.

Thank you.

To find out more about Brian Lee Crowley and Fearful Symmetry, please visit