Quebec feasts on equalization payments

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Sun Media, Friday, August 6, 2010

We need new rules on equalization, and the proof of it is in the Quebec model.

Equalization is supposed to allow the six recipient provinces to provide “comparable services” to the four donor provinces.

But Quebec, which received $8.3 billion or 60% of all equalization transfers in the last fiscal year, provides services as a have-not province that are nowhere available among the haves.

There is no other province where publicly funded daycare is available for $7 a day, when its total cost is seven times that, $49 a day.

This is why Quebec, with only 20% of the daycare-age kids in the country, has about half the daycare spaces in the country. Thanks, Alberta.

There is no other province where university tuition fees are $1,800 a year for undergraduates, allowing Quebec residents to attend McGill, the country’s most renowned university, for about half what it would cost to attend the University of Alberta, the biggest donor province.

Quebec tuition fees have been frozen since 1995, which was in another century. Thanks, Alberta.

There is no other province where half the cost of private secondary schooling is subsidized by the provincial government, which is kind of Quebec’s little secret. The rest of Canada hasn’t heard of that one yet. But when my daughter attended Sacred Heart School for girls in Montreal for five years, the $7,000 annual tuition fees were matched by the government. This is why about 25% of Quebec secondary students attend private schools, as opposed to a national average around 10%. Thanks, Alberta.

And now, as of yesterday, there is no other province that provides free in vitro fertilization treatments as part of publicly funded health care.

The treatments can cost $7,000 and $15,000 per cycle, and a patient may undergo three cycles of IVF treatments. You do the math. Thanks, Alberta.

Already there is a long waiting list, as the Montreal Gazette reported yesterday: “With more than 3,000 women already signed up for treatments available for free, medical specialists say Quebec won’t be able to keep up with the demand.”

The program will cost Quebec $70 million a year, and is expected to provide about 3,500 IVF cycles in the next year, doubling by 2014.

But already there’s a shortage of family doctors and gynecologists in Quebec, to the point where the Gazette reported that, according to the provincial midwives’ association, about 1,500 Quebec women could not find a GP or gynecologist “to follow their pregnancies last year.”

One of the outcomes of IVF treatments is multiple births in 30% of successful cases, and one of the occasional consequences of multiple births is an incidence of autism in one of the children.

Quebec projects a deficit of $4.3 billion this year, a manageable 1% of provincial output, in line with stimulus spending to beat the recession.

But it wouldn’t be in a position to offer this new entitlement without the $8.3 billion a year in equalization.

Established in 1957 and entrenched in the Charter of Rights in 1982 at the insistence of New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield, equalization’s purpose is to provide comparable services for recipient provinces, not unique services at the expense of donor provinces.

But until we have a national conversation on equalization, if you want IVF treatments and can’t afford them, move to Montreal.

This is Quebec’s new version of revenge of the cradle.

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