Category Archives: In Conversation

Canada at the Polls 2019: A New Mandate?

With the Canadian federal election coming up in October, our forthcoming political science title is certainly well-timed. Set to publish this August, Absent Mandate develops the crucial concept of policy mandates – distinguished from other interpretations of election outcomes – and addresses the disconnect between election issues and government actions. In this post, the authors discuss the upcoming election: what we can expect to see? Has anything really changed since elections back in 1965? And are Canadian electoral politics now following a new, or even unfamiliar, path?


By Harold D. Clarke, Jane Jenson, Lawrence LeDuc, and Jon H. Pammett

The 2019 federal election will soon be upon us. The period leading up to the vote has seen the current government lagging in the polls, but there has also been no clarity as to the public’s preference for the alternatives. Negative campaigning is already well underway, and polls reveal a considerable amount of public discontent with the political process in general. Big issues, like environmental protection, the energy supply, the state of the economy, and national unity are the subjects of media commentary. The party leaders have been unveiling policy announcements keyed to their forthcoming campaigns, and trying to showcase their strengths at dealing with today’s problems.

Does anything in these patterns suggest that Canadian electoral politics is following a new road or even an unfamiliar path? Not really, as we show in our new book, Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections.

This book has its roots in several previous books bearing similar titles that we published more than twenty years ago. Those books addressed two key questions that have always engaged students of elections and voting, namely “how do voters decide?” and “what decides elections?” The national election studies since 1965 that have provided the data for our analyses consistently reveal that Canadian voters hold flexible partisan attachments, that election campaigns are often volatile, that the bases of party support are weak and unstable over time, and that public discontent with politics and politicians is high. We documented these patterns since then, as have numerous other scholars.

The Absent Mandate books, however, introduced a third question that was less common than those associated with voting behaviour and election outcomes. That question – “what do elections decide?” – spoke to the linkages between elections and public policy, thus addressing one of the key issues of democratic governance and its normative foundations. If the electoral process, as it generally unfolds in Canadian federal politics, does not produce a mandate for the subsequent direction of public policy, then what can we reasonably expect elections to accomplish beyond a rearrangement of the actors?

The third of the Absent Mandate volumes, published in 1996 and subtitled Canadian Electoral Politics in an Era of Restructuring, concluded that despite all of the political and economic changes that had taken place in the federation during the first half of the 1990s, there were substantial continuities with the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, including the absence of policy mandates. Among those continuities was the widespread feeling that parties could not be trusted to offer real choices among policy alternatives in elections. Indeed, by the 1990s, all parties had accepted the broad outlines of a neoliberal policy agenda. They framed policy discussions around issues on which there was substantial agreement, and focused their campaigns on the attributes of the party leaders, promising better performance in government as they shaped their appeals to the electorate.

Indeed, a two-way process of learning was underway throughout these decades, sustaining what we have labelled the brokerage mould. Parties had learned that their electoral coalitions are fragile creations that require constant renewal, and voters had learned that elections are vehicles for the expression of discontent with few consequences for substantive policy change. The electoral system has also played a role in this process because it limits the choices available to voters to the candidates in a single constituency. Turnout in federal elections began a steep decline in 1993, partly for these reasons but also reflecting generational changes.

The first two decades of the twenty-first century saw many changes – in the party system, in styles of leadership, in the social and economic issues confronting Canada, and in the technology of election campaigns, to mention only a few. The reunification of the Conservative party under the leadership of Stephen Harper in 2003 ended a period of party fragmentation on the right and positioned the Conservatives to return to power with a minority government in 2006. Harper seemed to be a different type of conservative – coming from the West, more ideologically driven, and (according to some) harbouring a “hidden agenda.” Yet, even under a leader such as Harper, electoral politics continued to operate within a brokerage mould. The Harper years, including a majority government in 2011, failed to deliver the type of sea change in federal politics that many had expected. Following the Conservatives’ defeat in the 2015 federal election by the resurgent Liberals led by Justin Trudeau, an observer could easily conclude that the political landscape looked increasingly familiar. The “two-and-a-half” federal party system, long described as the norm in older Canadian political science textbooks, seemed to have reappeared. Indeed, a simple macro comparison between the year of the first Canadian Election Study and the 2015 outcome documents remarkable similarities.

Party vote percentages, 2015 and 1965
2015 1965
Liberal 39.5% 40.2%
Conservative 31.9% 32.4%
NDP 19.7% 17.9%
Other 9.1% 9.5%

Of course, some things are different. Election campaigns, building on new technologies and social media, can increasingly channel the negative feelings of voters, as “attack ads” have become a staple of partisan politics. Yet leaders, and their strengths and weaknesses, remain the focus of much political debate, and parties’ issue agendas are limited to performance appeals such as “growing the economy” or “sustaining health care.” Such valence issues are ones on which there is widespread consensus, and political debate focuses on “how to do the job” and who is most capable of doing it. More specific policy commitments are sometimes offered, but these tend to be small programs targeted to specific groups and co-exist well within the framework of a broad neoliberal policy consensus. All of the parties participate in political marketing utilizing the new technologies available. But these strategies appear remarkably similar to those associated with the brokerage mould that had characterized the earlier periods. If there was a “shift to the right” as some had forecast with the rise of Harper, multiple parties appear to have participated in varying degrees in a movement in that direction. For example, it is telling that all of the current parties support the recently negotiated USMCA, the successor agreement to NAFTA. As we began to write Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections, we were more struck by the continuities that existed in the shape and style of Canadian electoral politics than by the many changes that had taken place over the past two decades.

Now, with a federal election only a few months away, would we venture to make predictions, based on over 50 years of data and four books on this subject? We know enough about the fundamental elements of Canadian politics to realize that election outcomes are inherently unpredictable. Nonetheless, we can readily predict some things. The forthcoming campaign will be a volatile one. This will be because flexible partisan attachments coupled with widespread discontent facilitate, indeed foster, substantial movement by voters between the parties or movement into or out of the electorate. In each of the last two federal elections (2011 and 2015) there was considerable volatility in the polls over the last few weeks of the campaign. We would also expect to see parties concentrating on one or more valence issues such as the government’s economic performance and environmental protection, as well as efforts to highlight the attributes of party leaders and the shortcomings of their opponents. And given these entrenched characteristics of Canadian electoral politics, we can also predict that any meaningful policy mandate emanating from such a campaign will continue to be absent.


Want to learn more from Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections?

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Harold D. Clarke is the Ashbel Smith Professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Jane Jenson is a professor emerita in the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal.

Lawrence LeDuc is a professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Jon H. Pammett is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.

Understanding What Works: New Book Explores Health Innovations from Around the World

Drawing on the analysis of over one thousand organizations engaged in health market innovations, Private Sector Entrepreneurship in Global Health is a valuable resource for researchers and students in management, global health, medicine, development studies, health economics, and anthropology, as well as program managers, social impact investors, funders, and policymakers interested in understanding approaches emerging from the private sector in health care.

In this post, the editors of Private Sector Entrepreneurship in Global Health discuss the Toronto Health Organization Performance Evaluation (T-HOPE), a group they co-founded back in 2007. They reflect on the outcomes of that group, and discuss why ongoing commitment to improvements in human health is as important now as it was 50 years ago.


This book is the culmination of more than a decade of collaborative work conducted at the University of Toronto, in partnership with colleagues around the world through our group, the Toronto Health Organization Performance Evaluation (T-HOPE). The work published here began when co-editors Onil Bhattacharyya and Anita McGahan joined the faculties of Medicine and Management, respectively, in 2007. We engaged students from each of our disciplines to examine the medical and management innovations of pioneering organizations from the private sector – both social enterprises and non-profits. This led to insights about how some private sector pioneers applied management techniques in finance, operations, and marketing to achieve breakthroughs in health outcomes in resource-limited settings.

In 2010, Will Mitchell and Kathryn Mossman joined the team, and we partnered with Results for Development (R4D) to explore how broad health outcome measures contrasted with the organization-level process and profitability metrics that were customary in our fields of medicine and management. The field needed criteria that reflected differences in the strategies, sustainability, and scale of the innovative organizations that we sought to assess. We wanted to develop a reliable framework that was widely applicable to assess the effectiveness of organizational choices.

To accomplish this, we engaged with a committed, inquisitive, and capable group of students from medicine, social science, public health, management, and global affairs. The T-HOPE team worked on a series of projects focused on understanding how organizations around the globe are innovating to improve healthcare, particularly for the poor. In everything we did, we sought to adhere to strong scholarship while translating our research to findings that would be useful in practice and policy.

This book reflects the outcome of that decade-long effort. Key themes include:

  • Managing trade-offs between access, quality, and efficiency: Credible and feasible measures to guide strategy are essential to create health value in new ways and to apply innovative approaches.
  • Localization: New tools that reflect local needs and local resource constraints are available to support innovative organizations, especially those that seek to address the specific concerns of small communities.
  • Reverse innovation: There are growing opportunities to learn from different contexts and apply innovations from other parts of the world, including diffusion from resource-constrained contexts, in higher-income countries such as Canada.
  • Technological leverage: Digital health tools can improve access and empower patients and providers.
  • Sustainability: Sustaining impactful health innovations requires innovative financing, partnerships, and approaches to cost structure.
  • Scaling: Scaling up innovative approaches begins with generating demand, and is fulfilled by excellence in execution.
  • Management is central to healthcare: Many of the problems facing healthcare are management problems, creating the potential to revolutionize healthcare through innovative approaches to the central management issues of organizational processes, finance, and marketing.
  • Public-private complementarity: Critically, health innovators from the public and private sectors must work together to coordinate and integrate care to maximize impact.

 

Our core message is simple: private sector organizations, including for-profit social enterprises and non-profit NGOs, play a large role in delivering healthcare in many countries. Harnessing the capabilities and activities of these organizations can help achieve sustainable healthcare for those who need it most. A range of organizations in the private sector have implemented technical, organizational, and management innovations that provide healthcare and promote health in a range of settings. These innovations can inform healthcare in other settings.

While we see public sector agencies and initiatives as essential to the planning and sustainability of health care globally, we also acknowledge that public sector organizations face resource limits, political challenges, organizational constraints, and other barriers that can limit their impact. In turn, we highlight the value that private sector organizations can bring to health globally – by testing and scaling new models that fill gaps in care, and by acting as a source of replicable solutions in other settings. Private-sector organizations can extend the reach and impact of public organizations. Through greater coordination, collaboration, and integration, public and private providers can work together to ensure that quality care is accessible to those who need it most around the world.

Globally, a great deal has been accomplished during the past half century to improve healthcare and strengthen health systems. On average, average life expectancy has increased by 20 years since 1960, while infant mortality dropped by 35 children per 1,000 births since 1990. Despite this success, huge gaps in access and quality remain in all countries – both on average and in the lives of individuals. Indeed, improvements in many countries have plateaued, and in some cases even been reversed, during the past decade. Moreover, health challenges that once were isolable now have global implications – the cross-border diffusion of the Ebola virus is one obvious example. Ongoing commitment to improvements in human health is as important now as it was 50 years ago.


Anita M. McGahan is University Professor and George E. Connell Professor of Organizations and Society at the University of Toronto, where she is appointed at the Rotman School, the Munk School, the Physiology Department of the Medical School, and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Kathryn Mossman is Associate Director of Research and Strategy at iD. As an anthropologist and research consultant, her areas of interest include global health, gender and immigration, knowledge translation, insights and strategy, and organizational effectiveness.

Will Mitchell is the Anthony S. Fell Chair in New Technologies and Commercialization at the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto. He studies business dynamics in markets around the world.

Dr. Onil Bhattacharyya is a family physician and the Frigon Blau Chair in Family Medicine Research at Women’s College Hospital. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto.

The End of Pride?

Pride Month

To celebrate Pride Month, we have developed a blog series with weekly posts, designed to allow UTP authors the opportunity to share with us what Pride means to them, and to discuss a whole manner of Pride-related topics.

Our first contribution to the series comes from author André P. Grace, who alongside Kristopher Wells wrote Growing Into Resilience, (University of Toronto Press, 2015). In this post entitled The End of Pride?, Grace summarizes what has happened since Growing Into Resilience was published, and discusses his own experiences of Pride, the role of police within Pride, his opinion on Pride as it stands today, and what the future of Pride might look like.


Growing into Resilience: Sexual and Gender Minority Youth in Canada focuses on the comprehensive health, educational, and cultural concerns of sexual and gender minority (SGM or LGBTTIQQ2SA) youth and young adults in our country. The book accentuates the importance of having a team of caring professionals to provide wraparound services to SGM youth and young adults, especially those experiencing persistent adversity and trauma. In 2014, to serve this population, I initiated the Chew – community ~ hope ~ empowerment ~ wellness – Project in Edmonton. When I think about holistic intervention and outreach to recognize and accommodate the young people we serve, I focus on how educators, social workers, cousellors, nurses, and police officers can work collaboratively to meet their needs, especially when they are homeless and street-involved.

From the beginning, the Chew Project has partnered with Edmonton Police Service in our work to solve social problems, address survival crimes, and support SGM young people as one of Edmonton’s most vulnerable and targeted populations. Units assisting the Chew Project include the Hate Crimes Unit, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Unit, the Edmonton Drug and Gangs Unit, Beats, the SRO (School Resource Officer) Program, and Victim Services. When I think about what Pride means to me, and what my book says about the collective efforts of caring professionals including police officers to assist SGM youth and young adults presenting multiple needs, I cannot help but think about the exclusion of police officers from Pride parades at a time when I rely on this key caring professional constituency to help the Chew Project make life better now for the SGM young people we serve.

I attended my first gay Pride parade in Toronto in 1993. As a gay man who had grown up in a fishing village in Newfoundland where homophobia was a dark shadow that started following me in junior high school, the experience of being in a sea of queers was exhilarating. Clearly, I wasn’t the only queer in the village. Indeed, on that Pride parade day, Toronto’s gay village provided me with the community I had desired from the moment I self-affirmed my gayness as a young boy. That Pride experience happened five years before the 1998 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Vriend v. Alberta, which granted equality rights to lesbian and gay Canadians. In the spirit of the Charter as a living document, all sexual and gender minorities in Canada are now protected against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in Section 15, which guarantees equality rights.

Since 1993 I have attended many Pride parades in cities across Canada. For me, these parades have signified the importance of deliberately coming together to recognize and celebrate sexual and gender diversity. They have also marked a space and time to politicize the importance of accommodating sexual and gender minorities in law and legislation (as a matter of protection) and in social institutions and communities (as a matter of inclusion in everyday life). Indeed, such signification undergirds what has long been termed the gay agenda, which is about presence, place, and protection of all sexual and gender minorities in intersections with culture and geography as well as with relational differences including race, class, ethnicity, age, and ability.

In recent years, there has been erosion of the gay agenda and what Pride is all about. Sadly, much of that erosion has emanated from what used to be the gay or queer community itself. Indeed, such a community is now a fiction, and it appears the enemy lies within. Our former community is presently marked by dissention, segregation, fear, and exclusion. There are those with particular motives and intentions that often sideline core sexual and gender minority issues and concerns, which homo/bi/transphobes in culture and society still position in conservative moral and political terms in their efforts to defile and erase us. As we cannibalize our own, we place ourselves at risk of erosion from within. This gives ground to rightist erosion of all things queer, gay, or however one chooses to name sexual and gender differences.

In a watershed moment for sexual and gender minorities as a diverse population in Canada, Black Lives Matter constituents temporarily disrupted the 2016 Toronto Pride parade to contest issues including police presence in the parade. What happened at Pride in Toronto that year has had sustained repercussions for Pride parades across Canada. For example, 2017 was marked by restrictions or bans affecting many police services, with division characterizing deliberations regarding Pride. In that year, members of Toronto Police Service were absent from Toronto’s parade. In Edmonton, at a time when the police service was actively recruiting sexual and gender minorities to become police officers, members of Edmonton Police Service did march in uniform, despite controversy. Calgary Police Service decided to participate in Calgary’s parade, but respected the Calgary Pride committee’s request for police officers to march out of uniform. Prior to this, Calgary police officers had always made the personal decision to march in uniform, with the backing of the police service. This right to choose would have been particularly poignant for sexually and gender diverse police officers and other service staff who wanted to intersect the personal and the professional. Sadly, such professional erasure ignored long-term relationship building between law enforcement and Calgary’s sexual and gender minority constituencies, which was part of efforts to transgress a history of harm at the hands of police officers. It also ignored a police-service emphasis on training new recruits to provide policing inclusive of sexual and gender minorities and other minorities across racial, cultural, and other differences. At the time, Calgary Police Service had ongoing and open dialogue with two advisory boards. One board was composed of sexual and gender minority citizens while the other was made up of the police service’s sexual and gender minority employees.

I once interviewed a young gay male who was a beginning teacher working in a primary classroom. He had placed a picture of his partner on his desk, an act that courageously intersected the personal and the professional. This is something I could never have done as a teacher working in schools in the 1980s. As Dr. Blye Frank, Dean, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, reminds us, sexual minority teachers have had to work to hide and hide to work. Importantly, Vriend paved the way for greater sexual and gender minority inclusion in law, legislation, and institutional policymaking in our nation. Yet, while teachers like me used to hide the personal to be professional, in a twist in recent years, Pride committees have directed police officers across sexual and gender identities to hide the professional. This assaults the notion of Pride, which must be about being visible as whole human beings who can freely intersect the personal and the professional. In post-Charter Canada, sexual and gender minority police officers have every right to march openly as complete persons in parades.

Kathleen A. Lahey, Professor, Faculty of Law, Queen’s University, spoke about the historical exclusion of sexual and gender minorities from police services, the teaching profession, and other civil appointments in her influential book entitled Are We ‘Persons’ Yet? As Lahey recounts, sexual and gender minorities have been historically excluded from all kinds of public positions. Now, with Edmonton Police Service, among other police services, transgressing this history of exclusion, we have to ask what damage is being done to inclusivity by those wanting to ban sexual and gender minority police officers from marching in uniform.

In his groundbreaking book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asks us to consider a key question: When do those who are oppressed become oppressors? This question demands reflection by Pride organizers in any Canadian city where sexual and gender minority and allied police officers are excluded from marching in uniform in Pride parades. To move the gay or queer civil rights movement to a more inclusive stage, Pride organizers might remember that marching in uniform is a visible reminder that these police officers are out and proud, transgressing a history of defilement and exclusion.

I truly hope Pride is not dead. And I hope it is not reduced to a historical moment, or to a stressor or trigger for sexual and gender minorities navigating the present moment. However, I am conflicted. Sexual and gender minorities have long lived with a history of fear. If that history now includes the emergence of new fears propagated by angry sexual and gender minority constituencies targeting others in a dissolving community, maybe Pride should die. But maybe some new form of Pride can arise like a phoenix from the ashes of Pride wildfires that started in 2016. I hope so for the sakes of older queers who took part in the struggle for gay liberation and younger queers still struggling for presence and place in their families, schools, and communities.


André P. Grace is Canada Research Chair in Sexual and Gender Minority Studies and a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta.

Academic website with contact info: https://www.andrepgrace.com

Community website: https://chewprojectyeg.org/

 

The Right Side of History: The Political Urgency Needed in Addressing Climate Change

Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice, Second Edition, written by Peter Stoett with Shane Mulligan, is a comprehensive and accessibly written introduction to the policymakers and the structuring bodies involved in creating global environmental policies. The book provides a panoramic view of the issues, agents, and structures that make up the fabric of global environmental governance.

In this post, author Peter Stoett writes about his time spent at the Planetary Security Conference in the Netherlands at the beginning of the year and why these conferences reflect the political urgency currently attached to climate change.


Back in February, I attended the 4th Hague Planetary Security Conference in the Netherlands, where over 350 international experts, practitioners, military and government representatives gathered to discuss the threats posed to the world by climate change and other threats to planetary ecology. Mixing all these people together would have been unthinkable a mere three decades ago; now it is commonly accepted that the only way we can promote resilience and adaptation to climate change is by inter-sectoral collaboration that includes some unlikely alliances.

Representatives from the Lake Chad region, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East all say the same thing: climate change is not only real and happening, but is exacerbating the threat of violence in these regions where mass migration and displacement, and civil conflict are already in strong motion. Water, in particular, comes up again and again as the resource scarcity issue of our time.

In Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice, Second Edition, I discuss water scarcity as not only a source of conflict, but of collaborative opportunity – most transborder water disputes have been dealt with diplomatically and many in fact have led to institutional developments. But there are clear indications that climate change-induced water scarcity is heightening extant tensions and it is fairly widely accepted that the horrible civil war in Syria was to some extent prompted by a severe drought that led to political instability. One theme that has emerged is that, despite the Security Council having dealt specifically with climate security, the UN needs to step up further and establish an early-warning system for climate-related conflict, so that we can see it coming and strive to take preventive measures.

Effects of Hurricane Irma

I was in the Netherlands to speak at an event focused on the question of moving to a post-carbon based energy infrastructure in the Caribbean region. The threats posed by climate change in the Caribbean are existential: this is life or death stuff. Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, coral reef bleaching, fisheries affected by temperature changes, freshwater scarcity; the list goes on for the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). I cover SIDS at various points in the text, as well as the gradual (some would say painfully slow) transition toward renewable energy production and consumption. Clearly, it is the way forward.

But the transition will not be painless, and as always it may leave some people behind. While we often think of the Caribbean region as a tourist destination or a hurricane zone, the reality is that most of the population and predominant industries are located near its beautiful coasts. In many ways Caribbean citizens are on the front-line of climate change threats, much like the Inuit in northern Canada and other circumpolar communities. These communities can benefit enormously from the adoption of renewable power sources that lessen dependence on the global oil economy, providing the technological capacity and public policy is conducive.

The shift to renewable energy will certainly affect the geopolitical structure of global ecopolitics. China is emerging as a renewable energy superpower, and will have increasing influence in areas such as the Caribbean beyond its usual economic presence. Human security is again rising as a viable concept to deal with the ravages that natural disasters inflict on civilian populations. Responsible tourism has become a genuine national security issue in the region since long-term economic development is so dependent on this sector.

We cannot base a global security strategy on constant disaster relief. Back in water-soaked Holland, there are famous stories about the futility of trying to stop floods with stopgap measures. One of the overarching questions of our time is how relatively impoverished and highly vulnerable regions can be integrated into global strategies. Conferences like this reflect the political urgency currently attached to the climate change-security nexus, despite its denial by a few powerful actors who are, as the saying goes, on the wrong side of history.


If you want to find out more about Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice, Second Edition, click here to view the table of contents and read an exclusive excerpt from the book.


Peter J. Stoett is Dean of the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute Of Technology.

Beneath the Surface: Finding Common Ground in Canada’s Most Distinctive Province

To the outside world, Quebec is Canada’s most distinctive province. To many Canadians, it has sometimes seemed the most troublesome. But, over the last quarter century, quietly but steadily, it has wrestled successfully with two of the West’s most daunting challenges: protecting national values in the face of mass immigration and striking a proper balance between economic efficiency and a sound social safety net.

In this post, Robert Calderisi, author of Quebec in a Global Light, and former director of The World Bank, discusses some of the issues that face Quebec, and why these challenges should be analysed in a wider, global context. 


Books about politics and society can be timely and revealing, but they can also be complicated, as current affairs do not always stay current. Quebec in a Global Light discusses trends and challenges that transcend the day-to-day, but – like all findings – they need to sifted through the sands of new developments. A good example is the remarkable progress made since the 1970s in protecting the French language. Some would prefer that an extra half percentage point of people be fluent in French, but 94.5 percent of Quebeckers can already conduct a conversation in the language. Diehards can worry more about decimals than decades. How will the next census affect their thinking?

Since the book was first written, some details – including the political party in power – have changed but the most important conclusions remain intact. Even under a conservative government, Quebec is the only social democracy in North America. Employment, growth, and investment are still strong. The province continues to reduce its notorious debt burden; in fact, Quebec now has a better credit rating than Ontario. The gap between rich and poor is the lowest on the planet – except for Scandinavia, which is an admirable set of countries to be lagging behind. And Quebec has set a very positive example in flighting climate change.

But one big thing has changed. Apparently out of the blue, Quebec has once again puzzled outsiders by its decision to ban the wearing of religious symbols by certain government employees. Even under a highly divisive US President, none of the other fifty-nine jurisdictions in North America has talked about doing that. And the hospitality and common sense of Quebeckers is being seriously questioned.

Yet Quebeckers have evolved profoundly over the last thirty years. In 1982, a number of Haitian taxi drivers in Montreal were fired because some white clients refused to ride with them. As a result, the Quebec Human Rights Commission held its first-ever public hearings. Many people today – including many Quebeckers – will find that hard to believe, not because racism has been magically exorcised from their society but rather because Quebec has become so diverse that differences of one kind or another – especially in Montreal – have become almost the norm. A third of Montreal’s taxi drivers are now Haitian and the city has the highest proportion of immigrants in that job (84 percent) in all of Canada.

In a society which some regard as under siege, most people are comfortable with diversity. According to a 2015 Quebec Human Rights Commission survey, Quebeckers had positive attitudes to the handicapped (92 percent), people of colour (88 percent), homosexuals (84 percent), citizens of other ethnic origins (76 percent), and followers of other religions (68 percent). This openness to others is sometimes attributed to the dominant role of women and feminine values in the society. Others see centuries of intermarriage and contact with Quebec’s First Peoples as the source of such community and consensus.

On the surface, other provinces have an even greater challenge making newcomers feel at home. While almost 40 percent of Montreal’s population were born in another country or to parents who immigrated to Canada, that number is much higher in Toronto (76 percent) and Vancouver (68 percent). But absorbing such a large number of people in Quebec, which is so determined to protect its language and culture, is particularly difficult.

Despite the proposed law, the common sense and humanity of Quebeckers remain obvious. In Montreal, teachers and students have surrounded schools in human chains promising to disobey the law. The city council has passed a rare unanimous resolution opposing the legislation. The two authors of the original idea that such symbols should be banned – the philosopher Charles Taylor and the sociologist Gérard Bouchard – have both come out against the bill. Behind closed doors, the governing party itself was highly divided on the subject. And the second largest opposition party (Québec Solidaire) has revised its own policy in the opposite direction. Instead of backing a compromise, they have now decided that any legislation on personal dress is a violation of individual freedom and an invitation to more general discrimination against minorities. It is just possible that the legislation will collapse under its own contradictions. No one has been able to explain how it will be enforced and no penalties are proposed under the law. In the meantime, the history of the issue – set out in Quebec in a Global Light – remains as relevant as ever.


If you want to find out more about Quebec in a Global Light, click here to view the table of contents and read an exclusive excerpt from the book.


Robert Calderisi was a Quebec Rhodes Scholar and is a former director of The World Bank. He is the author of The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working (2006) and Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development (2013). He splits the year between Montreal, New York, and Paris.