Quebec Wonders about the Price of Independence Economists Debate Consequences of Split

Article excerpt

Now that they have elected a government that wants independence from Canada, voters in Quebec are checking their wallets to see whether they really could afford to go it alone.

Every time they open their newspapers or turn on their TVs, the people of the predominantly French-speaking province are bombarded with wildly contradictory claims about the economic consequences of independence.

The Parti Quebecois, which won Monday's provincial election, promises a referendum on independence next year. The party says that not only are there no costs associated with separation, but that taxpayers would save at least $2.2 billion a year, mostly by eliminating overlapping federal and provincial bureaucracies.

Opponents argue Quebec long has been a beneficiary of the Canadian federation and would be among the world's most indebted nations.

Canada also would suffer by being chopped in half, with the four smallest and poorest Atlantic provinces physically cut off from the rest of the country.

Market analysts, including large U.S. brokerage and investment firms, are taking a wait-and-see approach, although they clearly prefer a united Canada.

Nonetheless, Quebec has lots going for it.

As Canada's largest province, it is three times the size of France and has a well-educated population of 7 million (far smaller than France's 57 million). Quebec is one of the world's largest producers of hydroelectricity, pulp and paper and minerals, and it straddles one of the world's main shipping lanes, the St. Lawrence Seaway.

But Quebec is heavily in debt. Its unemployment rate of 12.2 percent is nearly two percentage points above the Canadian average, and residents of Quebec are the most heavily taxed of all Canadians.

Forecasts by experts vary wildly.

The economic strength of an independent Quebec would depend largely on whether the divorce from English-speaking Canada was amicable, says Doug Brown, executive director of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations at the Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. …


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