Is the businessman public enemy number one in Quebec?
Premier Rene Levesque, in a Time magazine interview, characterized as "blackmailing bastards people who can come in from outside, pick up our savings and ignore the majority around them." Businessmen who oppose his government, he said, can expect to be answered "brutally" by Parti Quebecois ministers. These ministers have called the business comunity among other things "men without souls or homelands," and "sellouts in feudal bondage" to the English-speaking establishment.
In short, said Pierre Des Marais, president of the Conseil du Patronat (CPQ), umbrella organization of 126 associations employing 80 percent of Quebec's workforce, - Since Nov. 15 (1976, the date of Levesque's election), we've been treated like dirt."
Last month the Patronat presented the premier with a 12-page brief complaining about his unflattering references to business and his government ambiguity about the free enterprise system. Des Marais told Levesque the Patronat's members were also French Canadians and resented being treated as persona non grata by their own government.
The Patronat criticized the Parti Quebecois for its economic programs, especially government intervention in the asbestos industry of the auto insurance industry - many of the same criticisms made by Anglo-phone businessmen. Moreover, the CPQ feels Levesque betrayed his campaign promise to restore good government and sneaked in the independence issue only after his election. The brief reminded Levesque that his separatist policy does not have solid support in the business world - and added that the uncertainty over the question and timing of a referendum was partly to blame for the present economic malaise. Levesque's reply was to quote Harry Truman's admonition to get out of the kitchen if you can't stand the heat.
Some observers estimate that whereas 20 percent of the population at large may approve of independence, and 40 percent approve political separation with economic association with the other nine provinces, Levesque may have perhaps 5 percent of Quebec's businessmen behind him. Eliminating Englisg Canadians and those whose working language is English could possibly raise that percentage to 10 percent of the French Canadian business community.
Mitzi Steinberg Dobrin, a business executive, heir to the Steinberg food chain fortune and the first woman director of the Royal Bank, is a Levesque supporter. She feels that his election has done a "lot of good. It had to come," she said, and now the "big Anglo firms" have started looking at the French population(See CANADA, E2, Col. 1)(CANADA, From E1)
But the greatest support for Levesque's sovereignty-association plan - if not entirely for the man himself - comes from the small and medium size Francophone business sector. "Levesque is not anti-business:" said Jacques Flahault, a film distributor for Cine-Canada, "he's just against some businessmen who resist change. After all , was President Kennedy anti-business because he called the steel leaders SOBs?"
Flahault belongs to the Conseil des Hommes d'Affaires Quebecois (Council of Quebec Businessmen), a small group of French Canadians who see in independence a way to restore power to the provincial government and block the concentration of economic power in the hands of the multinational companies. A two-hour round table discussion recently in Montreal revealed how much these people are counting on sovereignty-association to redress historic grievances and to get them the share of the pie they believe they deserve.
CHAQ's president, lawyer Andre J. Belanger, began by noting that in a province where 81 percent of the population is Francophone. French Canadians own less than 10 percent of the action in the primary sector such as the mining industry and 20 percent of manufacturing. It's only in the tertiary sector - distribution, services - which is least important to economic development that they have a majority.
Levesque has said that nationalization of the asbestos industry will allow Quebecers to gain access once and for all to the traditionally private and exclusive club of foreign operators and with them, as equals, promote in the shortest possible time the manufacturing of activities which we, the owners, have been deprived of for too long."
Phrases like absentee ownership, cheap labor, tokenism and white Niger pepper their conversation. Yet these are no young revolutionaries but middle age businessmen whose aim is not to abolish the free enterprise system but to modify it profoundly.
Based largely on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) of 1947, the term has not yet been precisely defined by the Parti Quebecoils. It is thought the party's leaders haven't yet made up their minds on questions such as whether Quebec would have a separate currency or would impose duties on goods from other provinces. It is also politically smart not to lay out one's cards too soon before the late 1979 referendum and give the opposition time to trump one's aces.
Marc Lalonde, the federal minister charged with federal-provincial relations, is not alone in preceding that if Quebec separates without association, her industry will be gobbled up overnight by the United States. Although the premiers of the other provinces have indicated willingness to associate economically, CHAQ members believe they have no choice but to accept the formula. For, they reason, Quebec can always buy its products and sell its raw materials elsewhere in the United States, Europe or the Third World.
"What difference does it make whether 20,000 or 72,000 English (Canadians) leave?" asked Pierre Grenier, a Peugeot dealer. "There are as many Belgian, Finnish, German and even American industries to take their place." Noting that U.S. companies and multinationals were ready and eager to do business in Englidh, French or Chinese if necessary, Flahault belittled reports that lack of confidence was leading to a halt in private investment. He cited the case of General Motors which is moving its bus assembly plant from London, Ont. to a Montreal suburb as a condition for getting a $93.5 million contract from Quebec to build 1,200 buses. The GM bid was $7 million less than a joint offer from QUebec-based Bombardier Ltd. and American Motors.
GM's move to Quebec was important enough politically to Levesque that he disregarded his own Buy Quebec campaign. But it also won some begrudging praise from an Anglo-phone businessmen who refers to the premier and his financial advisers as ivory tower economists who have never had any real world responsibility for the bottom line.
Levesque's blasts at businessmen and the scorn many Anglophones reserve for Franchophones' business acumen stem from the low esteem in which trade is held in French culture. The sons of good families were, and still are to a great extent, traditionally groomed to enter the church, the schools, the professions of doctor or lawyer, or government service.
Tradition dies hard and, as such, the businessman is still public enemy number one in Quebec, according to Pierre Laurin. The director of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Montreal, Canada's oldest business scholl, told a Chambre de Commerce meeting last month, "Perhaps we are not yet sure enough of our selves to measure ourselves against those who hold economic power! The English. Moreover, we do not forgive those who have succeeded in business; it is such a foreign thing to us that we accuse those who do succeed of having sold out." The anti-business theme is echoed in the classroom where Laurin preceives a Marxist-Maoist slant in the teaching. Undergraduate level professors of today were demonstrating in the streets a decade ago.
Business education is increasing faster in Quebec than in other provinces, Laurin said, but it has much farther to go. A recent survey showed that just half of the business graduates are Francophones, even though they make up 81 percent of the population. He predicts it will be 10 or 15 years before the imbalance is made up and French Canadians head their proportionate share of firms. At present, of the 105 largest private companies in Quebec, only 14 have a majority of Francophone directors: in the others, only 9 percent of the directors are French Canadians.
Quebec produces 80 percent of the Western world's asbetos. It has rich lodes of iron, aluminum, copper and zinc, vast forests and abundant water-power. Refuting the separatist argument that raw materials will make Quebec rich; Laurin argues that Brazil has as many resources as the United States: Pakistan as Japan. And Switzerland has wealth without much natural bounty. What is needed, he said, besides a new attitude toward business, is new markets, innovations and a new infrastructure to attract foreign capital.
"If present trends continue, I am firmly convinced that Quebec will slip toward decadence." he stated. Laurin, whose brother Camille is Levesque's minister of cultural development and the author of language bill 101, rejects the separatist contention the English flight will do no harm. He says the government, without seeming to retreat, will make effort to stop the hemorrhage by not pressing for strict application of the law.
Far more important for Francophones than 101 is the independence issue. Jean-Paul Letourneau, executive vice president of the Chambre de Commerce de la Province du Quebec, said sovereignty-association would prove "extremely expensive." The chambre, which has 32,000 individual members from 2,500 corporations, believes the only solution is federation with constitutional changes. Since Canada's constitution was passed in 1867, lines between federal and provincial responsibilities have become blurred.