In the late 90s, Canada was still seemingly on the edge of a break-up. But exactly 15 years ago at the Hotel Des Gouverneurs in Quebec City, that started to change, thanks to a scholarship program.
Recall: in the summer of 1997, the Chretien government gave in to a long-standing demand of the Government of Quebec, and the province’s chattering classes, and handed-over powers for labour market training programs. The silence from said chattering classes was deafening. Partly in retaliation, Chretien decided he’d poke Quebec in the eye by creating a Millennium Scholarship Foundation to hand out scholarships to all Canadians, including Quebecers (it was created as a private foundation precisely in order to do an end-run around Quebec’s opt-out from the Canada Student Loans Program).
The PQ, predictably, went mental. Even the provincial Liberals – who back then felt a need to regularly buff their nationalist credentials – joined in, sponsoring a motion in the National Assembly that said Quebec would not work with the Foundation unless: a) Quebec got a proportional share of whatever money was on offer; b) Quebec would get to choose who got the recipients; and, c) there should be no duplication with provincial aid programs. The PQ agreed because it figured these were terms the Foundation could not meet, and so the motion passed unanimously. The PQ position was strengthened in the fall of 1998 when it won re-election, in part on a campaign against federal intrusions into provincial jurisdiction. Advantage Quebec, right?
What the PQ didn’t reckon on was Norman Riddell, the Foundation’s Executive Director. He went around the country striking deals with every other province, which more or less met Quebec’s criteria. He gave every province a share of Foundation money equal to its share of population, he let them “choose” students by saying he’d give money to students with the highest need, but accept provincial decisions about how to define need. And there’d be no duplication, because he’d pay the provinces a small fee to run the whole thing for him anyway. Advantage, Foundation.
This annoyed the PQ, because they’d been counting on the feds being unreasonable in order to sustain their Ottawa-is-Satan narrative. They stalled, claiming it was beneath their dignity to negotiate with a “mere” Foundation, and insisted all negotiations be with Ottawa. This threw sand in the wheels because Ottawa’s intergovernmental affairs machinery is ponderous to the point of parody. By December ’99, just a month before money would start to flow in the other nine provinces, there was still no deal.
At which point, la Federation Etudiante Universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ) came to the rescue. It had dawned on students that there was: a) money on the table that their members would miss out on, and b) a deal to be made if the government of Quebec weren’t so obstinate. The students forced Quebec back to the table. Of course, Quebec still wouldn’t talk directly to the Foundation. Instead, the feds had to act as intermediaries, shuttling back and forth between two hotel rooms to strike a deal, just like Northern Irish “proximity talks”. It was deeply ludicrous, but a deal was eventually done, and Quebec students got their money like everyone else.
A few months later, Bouchard resigned as Quebec premier. It was mostly because his party rank-and-file had become an enormous pain in the ass, but in his resignation speech Bouchard cited his failure to make Quebecers hate the Foundation as one of the reasons he felt it was time to move on. Without Bouchard, the sovereignty movement caught a terminal case of lost mojo, and now stands weaker than at any time since the 1960s.
There’s no real point to this story, other than that those proximity talks (in which I participated) happened almost exactly 15 years ago to the day. And that, where student aid policy is concerned, Canada is – and always has been – a pretty goofy place.