Weaning Quebec from Alberta's purse

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Sun Media, Friday, February 26, 2010

In terms of instinctive feel for public opinion in Quebec, Lucien Bouchard is like Wayne Gretzky in the sense that he goes to where the puck is going to be rather than where it already is.

Nine years after his abrupt resignation as premier, Bouchard can still make headlines as he has twice in the last week, first when he said sovereignty was not achievable, and then when he joined a group of 16 prominent Quebecers who declared that Quebec’s university fees should be raised after a 14-year freeze imposed by his own government.

He’s right on both counts. A quickie poll by Leger Marketing found 56% of Quebecers agreed with him on sovereignty, though other leaders of the Parti Quebecois, past and present, begged to differ.

As for tuition fees, it’s obvious that Quebec universities suffer from underfunding. Quebec residents pay only $1,700 a year to attend McGill — one of the Top 20-ranked universities in the world, while Ontario students pay three times as much to attend Queen’s or the University of Toronto.

Taxpayers pay the rest, including the taxpayers of Alberta who send $8 billion of equalization payments to Quebec every year.

But there is no evidence that the Charest government has the political courage to raise tuition fees anytime soon, even though it has a permission slip to do so from the youth wing of the Quebec Liberal Party.

Nor is there any evidence that it has the courage to raise day-care fees from $7 a day, when the actual cost is $49 a day — again subsidized by taxpayers, including the voters of Alberta through equalization. (Alberta sends $40 billion a year to Ottawa and gets only $19 billion back from the feds in transfers and entitlements, leaving $21 billion in equalization from Ottawa to the recipient provinces, which now include Ontario).

So Quebec, with 20% of the kids in the country, has 50% of all the day-care spaces in Canada.

Real needs

There’s more: About 25% of Quebec secondary students attend private schools, compared to around 10% in other provinces. But half of tuition fees for private schools are covered by the government. For example, one of the top high schools in Quebec is Loyola, where families pay $6,000 tuition, and the government covers the other half. Again, thanks to taxpayers, including those in Alberta.

I digress. To come back to the point of Bouchard and the group of 16, Quebec universities are chronically underfunded by at least $500 million a year relative to their real needs. And to ensure that no one is denied a college education because of inability to pay, any tuition increase could be accompanied by student aid.

The question is whether the Charest government has the courage to allow tuition fees to rise, or whether it will allow itself to be howled down by a mob of students. The same question goes for day-care costs.

“Political courage isn’t something you can swallow with your morning coffee,” Bouchard declared. “You can’t wait around for a knight to arrive atop a white horse and say, ‘I will solve the problem.’ That’s not how it happens. It’s the people who must support difficult decisions because they’re the ones who pay for them.”

By the way, thanks Alberta.

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