MONTREAL — QUEBEC'S business leaders, at the forefront of rising national pride in the French-speaking province, have warned that a separate Quebec is a dangerous economic proposition. But at the same time they called for significant changes in the Canadian federal system. A poll released last week had 64 percent of business leaders in favor of a united Canada. An equal number said independence would have a negative economic impact in the first five years of a sovereign Quebec.
``Our members are saying we still want to keep Canada,'' says Ghislain Dufour, president of the Conseil du Patronat, a group of the top 400 business leaders in the province. ``The business milieu is still prepared to collaborate in rebuilding Canada.''
But their support comes with a rider: even pro-Canada advocates say there must be changes, what they call ``renewed federalism,'' which means more powers for Quebec, fewer for the central government in Ottawa. And one-third of the top business leaders said they wanted outright independence for Quebec, coupled with economic association with the rest of Canada.
``Dream Merchants,'' was Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's characterization of business and political leaders in favor of independence. He made those remarks in a speech earlier this month to the Quebec Chamber of Commerce. He received only polite applause.
During the 1980 referendum on Quebec independence, business leaders in Quebec fought for the `yes' side - pro-Canada - which won 60 to 40. Now many corporate executives in Quebec are among those calling for the Canadian province to be a sovereign country, or at the very least become almost independent within a reworked Canada. That is called ``sovereignty association'' or, lately, ``internal sovereignty,'' both seeming contradictions that English Canada has said in recent polls it will reject.
Many young Quebec business people, though, don't care what English Canada thinks.
``I think Quebec should just leave,'' says Philippe Cote, a young advertising executive with a United States agency's Montreal office. ``We have proven we can handle our own affairs; look at our successful companies, such as Bombardier [a maker of snowmobiles, New York subway cars, and executive jets]. I want to be in on the beginning of a new country, my own country.''
That attitude reflects the thinking of young Quebeckers. A poll last month in the French-language magazine, Actualite, showed 64 percent of Quebeckers favored some form of independence. And that includes the 20 percent of residents who are not French-speakers.
MONEY talked in the last big debate on a separate Quebec in 1980. Now studies and statistics are again being trotted out to prove points for both sides.
The latest set of numbers shows Quebec is an economic winner in the Canadian money shuffle from the have provinces to the have-nots. The French-speaking province gets about $2 billion (Canadian; US$1.7 billion) more in benefits from the federal government than it pays in taxes, according to the Fraser Institute, a British Columbia think tank.
In his Quebec City speech, Mr. Mulroney asked why the taxpayers of British Columbia, Alberta, or Ontario would agree to keep transferring billions of dollars a year in equalization payments to a Quebec which would no longer share the responsibilities of the other provinces.
The simple answer appears to be that those dedicated to independence don't care. While $2 billion is a big number, it comes to only $304 for each of Quebec's 6.7 million people; more than spare change, but maybe not enough to tip the balance in favor of a united Canada.
``We have a good life here in Quebec,'' Mr. Cote says at an expensive restaurant on Rue St. Denis in Montreal, a place with an atmosphere as French as that of Paris. ``I think we could accept independence if it meant a slightly lower standard of living, but not if a meant a depression.''
One reality of an independent Quebec would be debt. The study by the Fraser Institute estimates a sovereign Quebec would have a total debt of C$100 billion, about a quarter of the Canadian total.
But Jacques Parizeau, the economist leader of the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois, says all the numbers show Quebec receives little or no benefit from remaining in Canada. He predicts a sovereign Quebec would be a business success. ``Small countries can live very well indeed within large markets,'' he says.