Monday, June 28, 2010

The Big Sleep: The Quiet Revolt of the Quebec Middle Class

I am a late arrival to the middle class. In fact, I've just arrived, so I am well placed to make some observations about how life is different here in the land of affordable luxury.

The reason I arrived late is that making money was never that important to me, but once I made that decision - it was payback time for the years of having someone else picking up more than her fair share of the tab - I have come to realize why the struggle to advance the common good is so difficult: those who have the capacity to make significant social contributions to society have opted out. With comfort comes indifference.

For someone who comes from a working class background in Winnipeg and went to the University of Manitoba, a university that will never make it to the top of the list of Canada's most prestigious post-secondary institutions since it strives to make a higher education universally accessible, it's easy to see that here in the land of skinny lattes and crossover SUVs hardly anyone gives a damn about the deteriorating quality of Quebec's public services.

Why would you if you can cherry pick? Leave it to the plebes to send their kids to public high schools where the drop out rates are around 40%, and leave it to the plebes to wait more than 24 hours to see a doctor at the emergency ward of a hospital since they don't have access to a family physician.

Of course, the rich don't use public services. We know that. But what is relatively new in Quebec is that the state actually encourages the middle class to make use of those publicly-funded services when they see fit and to become members of the petit bourgeoisie when it's to their advantage.

It starts with the publicly-funded daycare at $7 a day. It doesn't matter if you have a family revenue of $50k or $200k, the tariff doesn't vary, and the same rate applies for the before and after school supervision per day and for full-day supervision during professional development days while your child attends elementary school. Those of us with the means could pay more, but that would leave us with less disposable income.

The lack of progressive tariffs for social services constitutes a huge financial incentive towards establishing two income, two car families living in the burbs, where couples manage their small to medium enterprises (in French they are referred to as PMEs), which were previously called households, or in some cases, families. Essentially, the Quebec government subsidizes the middle class lifestyle.

For instance, once your children are ready for high school - and heaven forbid you send them to a crappy public school where every year the number of teachers without teaching certificates is on the rise - the state is there to pick up approximately 60% of the tuition fees. So, for about $3000 a year, you can send your child to a school where the chances of finishing secondary school within five years jump from approximately 50% to 98% as a result of the superior pedagogical program. This is a very sweet deal.

Thereafter, your children can then attend college in Quebec, which is a combination of community college and undergraduate university courses, for only a nominal fee. Then, university awaits with the lowest tuition fees to be found in North America.

With regard to health care, to make the system work for them, members of the middle class pay to get their diagnostics done in the private sector and then obtain the appropriate referral to the public system to have the medical service performed at a bargain rate. In the meantime, those with more limited means sweat it out waiting for their diagnostic examinations before receiving medical interventions.

Some would say that the presence of such affordable social services is the mark of a progressive society. Yet, something remarkable has changed in Quebec: the solidarity between the working class and the middle class that made the social gains brought on by the Quiet Revolution possible no longer exists.

Throughout the middle class, the triumph of individualism has occurred, and those who have the comforts as a result of having two professional incomes no longer are in the struggle to maintain the quality of public services. Instead, they have retreated to their enclaves, releasing their stress in the omnipresent above-ground swimming pools and hot tubs, while remaining more and more disengaged from the less well off. In short, the game has changed. Social causes have become a faded memory of a boomer past, and now when people march, more often than not, it's in support of the fight against cancer, the plague that respects no social boundaries.

The retreat from the social sphere in Quebec is best demonstrated by the precipitous drop in political activity. In ten years, the participation rate during provincial elections has dropped by 25%. Moreover, the number of electors who are members of political parties now resides at approximately 110,000 in an electorate of 5,400,000, about two percent - hardly a hot bed of democracy. This is a far cry from the 1995 referendum, which fell just 50,000 votes of having Quebec separate from Canada.

Today, it appears that the state's primary function is to be the port of entry into the middle class. More than 500,000 are employed in the public sector and salary scales have become much more important than the quality of government or the quality of public services. For example, Quebec's population is faced with a scandal-ridden government that refuses to hold a public inquiry into the connection between the construction industry and the financing of political parties in direct opposition to overwhelming public opinion. Elsewhere, this refusal would have been met with concerted action from the unions, leading to a series of public sector strikes in order to force the government's hand. Not here. Not now.

Two of the three major unions were in the process of negotiating their public sector collective agreements and third would have been part of the focus in a public inquiry looking at the construction industry. In other words, organized labour, which constitutes about 40% of the workforce, chose to cast a blind eye towards the legitimacy of Quebec's democratic institutions.

In a similar vein, there was an eerie silence in Quebec when it was announced in the last budget that there would be the equivalent of a $200 poll tax to raise monies for the health care system with an additional $25 charge per visit to consult a physician.

Without question this is a fiscal measure that drives a wedge between the middle and working class. For an upper middle class family, the $200 surcharge is the equivalent of the cost of a top-of-the-line hockey stick for junior, while for the working poor it may mean going without the essentials. Similarly, a $25 charge to see a doctor would not deter a middle class family from seeking an appointment, not so for someone with limited means.

The absence of a strong, vocal response to these regressive measures demonstrates the changes in Quebec since the days of the Quiet Revolution. The notion of creating an independent social democratic state is dead. Sovereignty has become an identity marker rather than a viable political option. Even the former Quebec Premier, Lucien Bouchard, publicly declares himself to be sovereignist while admitting that the movement is at a standstill.

It is as if Quebec, having failed at making the radical move of declaring independence, has lost interest in anything political, and when nothing stirs the passions, a great number will settle for material comfort. Politically speaking, les Quebecois have lost their collective mojo.

Yes, the culture and the language are alive and doing well, but other than the linguistic differences, there seems to be the boring North American sameness throughout Quebec. People here are in the same process of amusing themselves to death, only the cultural icons are different.

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