Address by the Minister of International Relations, La Francophonie and External Trade, Jean-François Lisée, to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations (CORIM)

Québec’s Global Ambitions

Montréal, February 11, 2013

Imagine a researcher who had to describe Québec without ever setting foot here or knowing anything about Québec’s economy or demographics. He would have to describe Québec based on its international presence—in short, by relying solely on his powers of deduction.

If he followed movie news, he would note that a Québec film had been nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film for the past three years running. Pursuing his cultural research, he would discover that Quebecers had mounted ground-breaking productions at New York’s temple of opera and were a force to be reckoned with in Las Vegas, that certain Québec singers dominated the francophone and anglophone charts, and that Québec dance troupes were acclaimed from Philadelphia to Berlin. He would also discover that the best jazz artists, comedians and contortionists converged every year on Montreal to share their art in a least four languages: music, laughter, English and, above all else, French.

Our researcher would know, because comparisons can be made, that Québec was not a cultural superpower, because it was not Hollywood, Bollywood or Paris. But he would conclude that Québec was a cultural power.

Filling his notepad with economic statistics, he would learn that no fewer than 100,000 cars bearing the logo of the Québec company Bombardier ran on the subway tracks of 40 cities and the rail lines in 21 countries, from Chile to Uzbekistan.

He would learn that Montréal was one of the three largest aerospace centres in the world and that Québec aircraft criss-crossed the skies of 100 countries and landed at American, Russian and African airports—airports built by Québec engineers.

He would also discover that Québec was a model for cooperatives. He would be told that representatives from 2,800 cooperatives around the world had gathered in Lévis in 2012 to celebrate the International Year of Cooperatives. And that they had returned home with an astonishing piece of information—that the top private employer in Québec was not Wal-Mart, as is so often the case elsewhere, but a major financial and cooperative powerhouse, the Desjardins Group. He would also find out that Québec’s Chantier de l’économie sociale was a reference in the social economy field and had played host to colleagues from 65 countries in 2011.

Continuing his investigations, our researcher would turn his gaze to Québec’s political influence. In Washington, DC, he would learn that one of the largest free trade agreements in recent history, NAFTA, would simply not exist had Québec not thrown its political weight into the balance nearly 30 years ago.

In Brussels, people would tell him that another historic agreement currently being negotiated between Europe and Canada would not exist without Québec’s desire to see it adopted.

In Paris, he would learn that the Québec’s strength of character, incarnated by a certain Louise Beaudoin, had been instrumental in forging an international agreement protecting the right of States to support their national cultures—a convention first championed by Québec, France and Canada, then by the Francophonie and subsequently by every country in the world, except two.

In various African capitals, he would learn that Québec was one of the most influential of the 77 member governments of the International Organisation of La Francophonie—brilliantly led by the great Senegalese statesman Abdou Diouf, who is ably assisted by Quebec’s Clément Duhaime.

In Haiti, the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, he would find out how Quebecers from 65 member NGOs of AQOCI, Québec’s association of international development organizations, were working to help local populations become more autonomous in numerous ways. He would learn that just last year Québec’s Chief Electoral Officer and his staff had assisted with democratic transitions in Benin, Morocco, Madagascar, Mexico, Gabon and Burkina Faso, and had also advised the Catalans, Americans and French.

In Boston, American’s academic capital, people would tell him that the city had only one rival in terms of the number of universities and local and international students: Montréal.

Turning to science, he would discover that a Quebecer, Pierre Dansereau, was the father of ecology, that another, Hans Seyle, was the first to describe stress, that rickets had been eliminated by Québec researchers who had discovered how to enrich milk. He would learn that congenital hypothyroidism had been detected in over 150 million newborn babies thanks to the work of Jean-H Dussault, and that Bernard Belleau had developed 3TC, the first medication used around the world to treat AIDS. Thanks to the work of Québec researchers over the past 30 years …
… We have a better understanding of the mechanisms of pain and Alzheimer’s.
… We have identified certain genes that predispose to breast cancer.
… We have discovered the capacity of neurons to regenerate in the central nervous system.
… We can now make early diagnoses of scoliosis and overwhelming bacterial infections.
… And we have invented the most efficient batteries for electric vehicles.

And that’s just a short list.

Back in his office with all his notes, what would our researcher take away from his investigation? It’s hard to say. But it’s easy to imagine this. He wouldn’t believe that a society of only 8 million could be the source of all these achievements. He wouldn’t believe that the GDP of this society would not rank it at least in the G20. He would have a lot of trouble understanding why this society wasn’t a member of the United Nations and why it couldn’t vote in forums where major issues were being discussed and decisions were being made, forums where it had so much to say and offer.

And if there is one question he wouldn’t ask, it is this: What is the purpose of Québec’s international policy? For he would see that it serves a profusion of creative initiatives, and makes a major contribution to international life.

The international political challenges facing Québec

As is the case for all nations, Québec’s international policy serves its own interests and values.

Québec’s priority is to continuously create the conditions for its own development. For a francophone nation that makes up 2% of the North American population, that means working tirelessly on every stage to contribute, in an inventive and combative way, to a world that values cultural and linguistic diversity over uniformity, a world that acknowledges that nations can make their own linguistic and cultural choices that are not undermined by commercial considerations.

I alluded to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. But you should also know that Bill 101 served as an inspiration for the defence of national languages in Armenia, Brazil, Catalonia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Basque Country, Poland, Nunavut and China. All victories for multilingualism, all recruits in the fight for diversity.

Québec’s other primary interest is preserving its ability to decide its own national destiny. We are not an independent nation. However, the choice to become one belongs to us. Lucidity—some would call it realpolitik—imposes an inevitable conclusion: the stronger Québec becomes, the more tools it will have to exercise this choice without hindrance.

What is Québec’s strength? The sum of all its assets. At home: its democratic health and robust institutions, the skills of its citizens, its economic weight and natural resources, and the quality of its products, services, research and creativity. Abroad: its political, economic and cultural clout.

Politically, the alliances we have built with the leading regions of Europe—Bavaria, Catalonia, Rhône-Alpes, Flanders, Wallonia—and, thanks to our tenacity, with the governments seated at the political table of the Francophonie, are all bricks in the edifice of our international credibility.

In the United States, our patient and active involvement in the Great Lakes and New England governors’ forums and, more recently with the alliance of American states promoting the carbon market, has made us an important player. Wall Street has a long-standing relationship with borrowers from the Ministère des Finances and Hydro-Québec, whose business is appreciated and coveted.

Some people reproach us for having wanted France to reiterate its historic position of “non-interference and non-indifference” toward Québec. They call this stance a sovereignist caprice. And yet, Jean Charest, a federalist, clearly understood that Nicolas Sarkozy’s contempt for this tradition would reduce Québec’s clout. Immediately after the former president’s pronouncements on the subject, Mr. Charest hastened to tell the journalists that France “would have no other choice” but to support Québec in the event of a positive referendum result.

Why such a fuss from an ardent Canadian like him? Ask Minister John Baird, who invited himself to Paris one week before my trip last fall to try to influence the decision, as did the Canadian ambassador, who was very insistent, according to our French friends, in warning the Élysée and Matignon, in vain, that this formula was most inadvisable.

France’s position tips the power balance in Québec’s favour, referendum or not. The fact that people in Ottawa, Washington, DC, and elsewhere know that France, the fourth most powerful country in the world, will stand by Québec whatever happens, immediately gives the Québec nation an intangible but durable and significant boost.

All this adds up. All this strengthens Québec’s position. For some, this is worrisome. That’s probably a good sign …

Trade issues

So much for Québec’s existential interests. Our international policy also serves more prosaic interests—the economy, trade, culture, immigration, education, scientific and sports cooperation, and tourism, to name the main ones.

Let’s talk first about trade and trade policy and the Canada-European Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement currently being negotiated.

Last April at this very forum, Pauline Marois talked not only about her support in principle for the agreement, but also about her concerns regarding a number of issues. She denounced the lack of transparency shown by the Canadian and Québec governments up to that point in the negotiations.

Since our election, my colleague Nicolas Marceau and I have innovated by giving members of civil society direct access to the Québec negotiation team. Two information sessions were held, one in October and another last month during a long conference call with some fifty interested groups. Negotiator Pierre-Marc Johnson and his team have also met with a number of major players in recent months and, also with opposition critics in December, to answer all their questions.

More generally, we have taken steps to ensure that the negotiations respect the strict guidelines that we have set ourselves. Our goal in trade negotiations is to make Québec companies more active internationally and to create more jobs in Québec. The agreement being negotiated with Europe will eliminate duties ranging from 6 to 14% on the products we export to a market of some half a billion consumers. This will give our economy a considerable competitive edge.

But our interest in the reciprocal opening of markets ends where trade agreements threaten our ability as a democracy to make our own public policy choices. This is not negotiable.

Education, health, water, supply management, none of these are negotiable, nor are they part of the negotiations. Nothing in the agreement forces our governments or our cities to privatize services. Nothing undermines our capacity to set social and environmental policy. At most, it will allow European companies to compete for more contracts with their Québec and Canadian counterparts than in the past, but within Québec’s current and future legal framework. And, yes, European companies, like all others, will be subject to Bill 1 on the integrity of public contracts.

For a long time, we were highly critical of NAFTA’s infamous “Chapter 11,” which gave investors the right to sue governments for measures such as changes to environmental policy. Allow me to be a little technical for a minute, but the subject requires it.

Since NAFTA, this power has been strictly circumscribed. Companies can no longer complain about general changes to acts or regulations or to intellectual property regimes. Investors no longer have recourse to punitive remedies. The statute of limitations for filing complaints has been reduced and the process is now transparent. In essence, investors can now only contest specific vexatious or arbitrary measures that cause direct harm to them.

It is this common-sense framework that we are defending in the present negotiations and will defend in all others.

We have also made it clear that we will not sign an agreement if we are not satisfied with the cultural protection clauses. This is why we worked with the Coalition for Cultural Diversity to make sure that their experts and ours were convinced that the wording adopted would provide solid protection for our cultural actions.

Modern coureurs de bois

Quebecers, as you know, have a tradition of blazing trails and roads where none existed before. North America is covered with French names because our ancestors, the pathfinders and coureurs de bois who followed in the great Champlain’s footsteps, were not afraid of the unknown. They showed fairness and respect in their dealings with local peoples.

That Québec way of dealing with the world lives on today. Unencumbered by a colonial past or imperialist ambitions, we treat others as equals and project an image of effective but friendly leadership.

This Québec DNA shows through in our approach to trade. We stay true to ourselves and jealously defend our ability to define our policies and who we are while, at the same time, wanting to be present on every continent. We export half of everything we produce. Our economy depends on our success in fostering an appreciation in foreign markets for what makes us distinct here at home.

Let’s look at a few numbers.

(slide 2)

Our trade deficit is a major foreign and domestic policy issue. As you know, it is largely determined by our oil imports. The Marois government has a firm commitment to reducing this dependence in two ways. First, by electrifying transportation—25% of private vehicles by 2020 and 75% of public transit by 2030. Second, by producing our own oil in a responsible way.

But, we also want to solve this problem by increasing our exports.

This shows our exports to the United States, our main customer, since the financial crisis.

(slide 3)

I am going to talk to you about diversification, which also applies to our neighbours to the South. We attach great importance to emerging U.S. markets, notably in the southwest, especially Texas, where we have conducted a number of successful trade missions. Our exports to the state of New York also continue to grow.

(slide 4)

(slide 5)

This slide shows export trends to Europe.

(slide 6)

Here, even in a depressed market, we are certain that the adoption of the trade agreement will give our market presence a significant boost and consequently create jobs in Québec.

Now let’s take a look at export trends to the BRIC nations.

Brazil (slide 7)

Russia (slide 8)

India (slide 9)

China (slide 10)

You can see how important it is for us to diversify our markets. This is why we want, within the parameters we have established, to reach agreements with India and why we support, in principle, the trans-Pacific agreement that is in the early stages of negotiation.

You can see where our exports have increased since the financial crisis. While our presence in the United States is massive, our growth in the BRIC countries is almost as strong. This is very promising.

(slide 11)

In this slide, we see how our exports have grown more diverse over the past decade.

(slide 12)

This slide shows a comparison with the rest of Canada.

(slide 13)

I will take this opportunity to show you an illustration of the internationalization of Québec’s economy. This slide shows the source of our imports. Note that only 30% come from the United States. Now, compare this with the rest of Canada.

(slide 14)

The diversification of our imports and exports is a sign of a more robust economy. We are not at the mercy of the economic volatility of a single partner and our economy is much more resilient.

Québec companies obviously deserve the lion’s share of the credit for our international success. But the Québec government plays a very active supporting role. Last year, our trade services assisted some 3,000 companies in their export endeavours, both in Québec and abroad.

We want to be even more effective in providing support, so one of our priorities this year is to develop a new trade policy. On the one hand, the new policy will better identify the export potential of Québec companies. On the other, it will better target the most promising countries and economic sectors in the years ahead. In this way, we will ensure that each of our initiatives has maximum impact. We are currently consulting all the economic stakeholders.

We have also added a new tool to our international toolbox abroad: Expansion Québec offices, the first of which was opened by the Premier in New York City in December.

The trick is to encourage Québec companies to make the leap abroad by reducing their costs and risks. Rather than having them wade into new markets all alone, we offer them a fully equipped office for three to eighteen months, consulting services with a bureau chief who knows Québec companies and local markets and a chance to rub shoulders and share experiences with other Québec and French companies.

The idea isn’t ours. It came from our partners at Rhône Alpes International, which already has 27 such offices that are available to Québec companies worldwide. Québec will add an 15 additional offices within five years, bringing the total to 42. The services provided are priced extremely competitively, but will make it possible for the Québec government to self-finance the entire operation.

The Africa strategy

There is a continent that I haven’t yet mentioned: Africa. According to the IMF, the African economies are at the same stage as China’s 20 years ago—preparing for take-off.

Those of you who have been to Africa, especially francophone Africa, know that Québec enjoys an excellent reputation on the continent. Our involvement in the global francophone community, our numerous university partnerships and our international solidarity initiatives add to the fact that many African decision-makers and academics have studied in Québec, notably thanks to our tuition fee exemption program.

We are determined to become active partners of emerging Africa. We are working on an Africa Action Plan that not only encompasses the economy, but also education, culture, support for rule of law and solidarity. The Premier hopes to bring you up to speed on the action plan at the Montreal Conference this coming June.


A common thread runs through each and every one of Québec’s international actions. This thread is an idea that transcends the mere defence of our national interests, an idea that brings us together and defines us, here at home and elsewhere: solidarity.

For several decades now, the Ministère des relations internationales has developed its own international solidarity programs in collaboration with AQOCI.

Acting within our means, and with measurable effectiveness, we provide assistance to Haiti and a number of African and Latin American countries. This assistance focuses on the transfer of expertise, especially agricultural expertise, sustainable actions, management by local partners and human rights.

Last week, in partnership with AQOCI, we began planning for the creation of an Agence québécoise de solidarité internationale. Why? First, to officially mark our sustained commitment to solidarity. To define together, over the coming months, the values the Agency should embody and the priorities that must guide it.

But our decision was made more urgent by the sad fact that the Canadian International Development Agency, CIDA, has lost sight of its mission in recent years and has moved away from the altruistic values that underpinned its creation and that were inspired by great Quebecers such as Paul Gérin-Lajoie, who I salute.

Today, Canadian solidarity seems to serve commercial interests. We believe that these imperatives must remain separate. Helping our companies excel abroad is one thing. But, when solidarity informs our actions, mercantile concerns have no place.

Canada and Québec: going separate ways

Québec’s international actions, their role and relevance, have become increasingly important in recent years because Quebecers are less and less comfortable with the policies of the Canadian government.

It isn’t that we are changing. We remain true to ourselves. It is Canada that is taking a different path.

For a long time, Canada’s involvement in peacekeeping operations was the focal point where Québec and Canadian public opinion on defence issues converged. But Ottawa now shows nothing but scorn for peacekeeping operations. Our friend Jocelyn Coulon reported last month in La Presse that Ottawa had recently refused on several occasions to head peacekeeping operations. It’s no longer interested.

The Canadian tradition of moderation in the Middle East, which was shared by Québec, has been replaced by unequivocal support for the positions of Israel, even when they are a matter of contention among our Israeli friends themselves.

This fall, I was pleased to receive unanimous support from the National Assembly to press Ottawa not to end the precious aid for the construction of a viable Palestinian State, which is undoubtedly a condition for a lasting peace between Palestine and Israel. We never even received an acknowledgment.

We Quebecers live, for now, in a country that acts so contrary to our values that we must expend considerable energy to tell the rest of the planet that we do not agree.

Today, in international environmental circles, it is generally acknowledged that Québec is the green province in a brown country. But do you know how much advocacy work it has taken over the past few years to achieve this result? Our parliamentarians and our environmentalists had to attend every international meeting to say: Yes, Canada got the environmental dinosaur award again, but we are different.

Imagine if this energy had instead been used by a sovereign Québec to advance the environmental cause as an active member of the coalition of pro-Kyoto nations.

Decisions made by Ottawa without consultation in the area of immigration sometimes seriously hinder our efforts. The imposition of visas on Mexican tourists hurt our tourism industry and impede the strengthening of our relations.

If we were independent, we could double in a few months the number of young French people coming from France to discover Québec, stay and work for a while, then settle here for good. But as a province, we can only wait on the goodwill of others. And we are sorely in need of these skilled, French-speaking workers.

When Québec selects skilled workers, Ottawa makes them wait another 9 to 51 months before issuing immigration documents. Immigrant investors wait 14 to 42 months. We could shorten these waiting periods considerably if we had the power to do so.

A paradox

It is the great paradox of Québec’s international personality. We are more active on the international scene than many sovereign states. And, while it’s true that we generally work closely with friendly, cooperative members of the Canadian diplomatic corps, we still have to routinely ask for permission to meet with ministers, sign agreements and invite diplomats to visit. We are at the mercy of Canada’s goodwill in a number of areas and, even in the best of cases, this additional obligatory step saps our effectiveness.

And when the goodwill disappears, as was the case when Jean Chrétien’s Liberals were in power, our international actions resemble an obstacle course.

We are thus condemned to excel in international matters, despite the obstacles that our status imposes on us. At least for now.

Our calling card

Fortunately, we have a formidable calling card: Québec creativity. With Montrealers and all Quebecers, we want to give Québec a reputation. We want everyone across the planet to know that Québec is a place where the 21st century is being forged today.

With C2-MTL, we want to make Montréal the Davos of creativity in May, every year.

In the years that remain before we celebrate Montréal 2017, which notably marks the anniversary of Expo 67, the fair that wowed the world with its modernity and ingenuity, we must focus our collective efforts and our international messages to ensure that Québec is seen as a land of creation and recreation.

We want everyone everywhere to ask the question: What are they going to dream up in Québec this year? What will they think of next?

We want young innovators from across the globe to dream of coming here to be part of Québec’s crucible of creativity. Because we are one of the most interesting, most stimulating places in the world, in addition to being one of the most welcoming.

A new generation of Quebecers is ready to take up this challenge. I will end by introducing a few new faces of Québec’s diplomatic corps. I will ask them to stand when their name is given so that we can applaud them together:

He was an economic journalist, then publisher of Les Affaires, our new Delegate General in London, Stéphane Paquet.

She was Senior Advisor, Public Affairs and Government Relations, at Bombardier Recreational Products, our new Delegate General in Brussels, Caroline Emond.

He was Director, United States, at MRI, our new Delegate in Boston, Jean Saintonge

He was our Bureau Director in Washington, DC, our new Bureau Director in Mumbai, Alain Olivier.

I would also like to mention that our Delegate General in Mexico, Christiane Pelchat, is also present.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends. Québec no longer has to make its place in the world. Through sheer will and hard work, it already has its place. Québec must now do even more, showcasing its originality, broadening its base and building on its networks and investments so that others can benefit from its political and cultural contributions and its spirit of solidarity.

Québec has a role to play in the world. It already plays a significant role. But this is only the first act. Together, if we work hard, if we are exemplary, we can give Québec a great role to play.

Thank you.

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