Pratte: Federal gridlock is a threat to national unity

Like most Canadians, Quebecers have relatively few interactions with the federal government. When constituents face difficulties, they usually call their provincial representative, rather than their MP.
Most “close-to-people” government services — health care, schools, day cares, etc. — are delivered by the provincial government, while Ottawa deals with things like passports, customs, immigration and employment insurance. Unfortunately, virtually all the services administered by the Government of Canada are currently broken, despite the fact that the federal government has significantly increased its expenses and its workforce since the pandemic hit.

When Quebecers are thinking about the federal government these days, they are not impressed. How come a G7 country is not able to issue passports in less than three months? Why can’t it deal with an immigration file in months rather than years? How is it that the government can’t ensure there are enough security and customs agents at major airports to process travellers within an acceptable time frame?

Le Journal de Montréal reported this week that a newly unemployed man has been waiting for close to three months for his first employment insurance cheque. It appears that his file needs to be treated by a “public servant level 2,” which would explain the delay …

Remember the sponsorship scandal, the massive (and corrupt) advertising program developed by the Chrétien government to increase the federal government’s visibility in Quebec? What we are seeing these days is the reverse.

Sovereignist columnist Joseph Facal was quick to highlight the federal government’s “gross incompetence,” and compare it to the Quebec government’s more responsive attitude: “While there is certainly incompetence at the Government of Quebec level, one does not see that lazy indifference, that feeling of distance, of flying way over ordinary people, of living on another planet that coats the federal public service.”

How can the Government of Canada argue that being part of the federation is advantageous if it cannot deliver the basic programs it is responsible for? Even before this latest mess, the proportion of Quebecers who said they think that Canadian federalism has more advantages than disadvantages for Quebec slipped to 43 per cent in 2022, from 51 per cent in 1998, according to Environics’ annual Confederation of Tomorrow survey.

This trend is not unique to Quebec; Canadians from other regions have also become skeptical about the advantages of federalism. Fortunately, other data points from that survey are more encouraging. For example, over the last two years, the percentage of francophone Quebecers who feel “Quebecers only” has dropped to 12 per cent from 22 per cent, while the proportion who feel equally Canadian and Quebecer has increased to 25 per cent from 18 per cent.

The same survey shows that 80 per cent of French-speaking Quebecers feel they are both Quebecers and Canadians to some degree. Quebecers know, for example, the very high value of a Canadian passport in foreign lands — if you can manage to get your hands on one, that is.

The breakdown of the services delivered by the Government of Canada cannot be allowed to continue. It is intolerable for Canadians, who carry a heavy load of taxes to receive those services in an efficient and timely manner. It is bad for the country, because it weakens the trust that Canadians have in their national government.

Because of this, and because repairing the large machine of government is obviously a complex undertaking, that should be priority number 1 for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet. It’s fine to issue statements and tweets about Ukraine and abortion in the United States, but when your government cannot deliver passports or unemployment cheques, it is your responsibility and your duty to come back from your worldly travels and get to work.

As long as the bureaucracy does not feel the pressure coming from the prime minister himself, this frustrating situation will continue. Members of cabinet like to show up at airports when refugees arrive; why don’t they show up at airports and passport offices now?

Relatively few Quebecers celebrated Canada Day yesterday. For most of us, the true national holiday is June 24, the Fête nationale. This does not mean Quebecers don’t feel some connection with Canada. But nowadays, the prevalent feeling is indifference — which could easily turn to anger if the Trudeau government does not tackle the current bureaucratic disarray head-on.

Source: Federal gridlock is a threat to national unity

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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