The financial relationship between Quebec and Vermont is crucial to both areas: Each year, $5 billion in trade crosses the border, the biggest piece of that being goods imported from Canada into Vermont. Canadian tourists bring about $168 million to Vermont each year and recently there have been improvements to the road that connects the two places.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard joined Vermont Edition to talk about the ties between Vermont and Quebec and political issues north of the border.
Premier Philippe Couillard: Vermont is the first trading partner of Quebec and New England, and the first partner when one looks at the whole U.S. It’s tremendously important for us. It’s not only about tourism — our businesses are working more and more together. Today I met with Gov. [Peter] Shumlin, with the Chamber of Commerce, and we feel the need to remind Quebecers that Vermont is a great place to go to during vacations, a good place to go shopping, but it’s also a great place to do business together. And that’s the new emphasis we want to put for the upcoming years.
Jane Lindholm: Given that, how important is improved transportation infrastructure – the highway that's recently opened along the route most Northwestern Vermonters take to Montreal, and the promise of train service between Vermont and Montreal?
PC: Of course we have the [Autoroute] 35 [connection with Interstate] 89 that is going forward as planned. We believe that by 2019 one should be able to drive in an unobstructed way from Montreal to Vermont … It will add to our capacity. I mentioned, and Gov. Shumlin also is of course extremely aware of this, that we have to, between now and then, build capacity at the customs station. Because you don’t want a brand new highway that is completely blocked at the customs station. I’ve written to Gov. Shumlin about this and I know he’s taking action with the U.S. Custom Services.
JL: So what does that mean?
PC: You need a larger building and more people, essentially, is what you need. On the railway side, as you probably heard, in recent days there has been an announcement between the two federal governments and an agreement of pre-clearance. Now, a lot of water still has to go under the bridges, because both parliaments, both the Congress and our Federal House of Commons must adopt. But we should start working now on this project. There will probably be three major projects in Canada: Vancouver, Toronto and Quebec, and we really believe that economically speaking, on top of quality of life issues and better ways of going from one place to another, it’s a very important project.
JL: When you stress the importance of the business relationship between Quebec and Vermont, how do you frame that relationship given the trade partnership that’s important and also cross-border politics?
PC: We are lucky to count on a very faithful friend in Gov. Shumlin. I’ve been meeting him many times since I came into office, and he’s always come across to me as first, a very active, imaginative person, and very personally involved in the quality of relations between Quebec and Vermont, and I think this is to the advantage of both people. Politics will play, I hope, a positive role, because as I’ve said a few times today, I believe Quebecers and Vermonters are like-minded people. We share the same ways of looking at issues. Take environment, climate change, the way to develop the economy, we are on the same page. So that should make things much easier, and politically speaking of course, you will find a lot of common points between Quebec and Vermont.
JL: Although we probably have some disagreements over NHL teams.
PC: There is no disagreement. The Habs are the best, obviously. There’s also a debate about maple syrup, which we solved today, Gov. Shumlin and I, because of course we [were] asked, "Where is the best maple syrup made?" So our answer: "In the northeastern part of the North American continent." Diplomatically I think it’s soft, but between you and me, and it’s only between you and me, I think Quebec still has the best.
JL: Last week, you spoke out about guns and gun ownership in Quebec. As I'm sure you know, gun issues are very touchy in this country. Your statement was in reaction to a statement by Prime Minister Harper saying that guns made people in rural areas safer. You disagreed, saying the fewer guns in circulation, the better. What are you proposing in terms of a gun registry specific to Quebec?
PC: First, I think Mr. Harper clarified his words shortly after. He didn’t mean free circulation of firearms, he made that clear. But certainly it’s an issue where there’s a lot of sensitivity in Quebec. For many reasons, one of which was the horrible massacre that happened at [École] Polytechnique years ago, where as you probably know, young women studying in engineering were killed just because they were women, by someone with a high-powered rifle. So, we were not really that keen on firearms before, and even less after that. This being said, I’m a hunter myself, so I do register my firearms and I think it’s perfectly normal. We know that the federal government has the bill, the long gun registry, [which is] in court right now, and there should be a Supreme Court ruling by the end of this week. Whatever the result, we’ll set up our own registry in Quebec. Why? The police forces ask for this. If they are going to intervene in somebody’s house, they need to know in advance if there’s a firearm there, [to] get prepared to intervene. So we are strongly on the side of strict gun control and a registry, particularly after the upcoming court decision.
JL: When you look at U.S. politics on gun rights, what’s your perception?
PC: I don’t want to be critical, because it’s a different culture, it’s a different history, and the worst someone in politics could do is go abroad and give lessons to the people he’s visiting. I’m a guest here. The only thing I would say is that for us, the right of bearing arms in no way looks like a Constitutional right. That’s something I would say, but we have a different Constitution and a different history. But again, as I was saying earlier, I think that Vermonters and New Englanders in general have quite similar views as far as I can tell, when I look at polls and media in New England.
JL: Since coming into office you've made a point of talking about the need to balance Quebec's budget and reduce the deficit. The finance minister warned a month ago that the provincial government still needed to find more than $1 billion in cost savings, on top of $600 million in new tax revenue that's being imposed. This week there have been student protests and more are planned for Thursday, the day the budget is being presented. Where are those cuts going to come from?
PC: First, the vast majority of our efforts — and we will reach budget balance, I have been saying it so, it’s not a secret — will be achieved through not only reduction of expenses, but different ways of doing the same things. Putting less money in structures, bureaucratic structures, while protecting money on the mission itself.
I’ve been asked the same question today about the demonstrations. People have the right to demonstrate. We are a free speech democracy and it’s great. I would just remind people that the balanced budget and sound public finances are important for today’s generation, of course, because then we can achieve some tax reduction. But also for the next generation, it’s a question of equity between generations. If we transfer Quebec to them with a full credit card, how is it going to help them to make choices later? So by reducing debt, by controlling deficit, although it’s not easy … but by attacking it head on, I think we’re giving the next generation the chance to make their own choices … It’s not the same environment, if they are faced with the debt and the deficit we faced when we came in, it’s going to make it very, very hard. Again, we really act not only for this generation, but the next generation, including the students.
JL: Budget cuts are always hard, so it may be a question of parody with the next generation, but it’s also a question of protecting vulnerable Quebecers and protecting things like paying for college, which has been a principal part of the way people in Canada believe an education should be paid for.
PC: And we still have, by far, the lowest tuition fees in Canada, so there is no ground lost here at all. In contrary, we make a lot of collective efforts to keep this as it is. If you look at the fees in Quebec to go to university, I think maybe people here in the states would be envious of that. But, of course, you have great universities and you have great institutions, but it’s something we all believe in. Doing cuts is never easy. We could have ignored the issues, just swept it under the rug and say, "The next generation or the next government will take care of this." No, we decided first to tell the truth, we are paying $30 million a day just for servicing our debt. Before a single dollar is spent on health care and education. We have to stop this. Also, we have to adjust the size of our state and the level of our true prosperity that we create ourselves in Quebec. That’s only a question of responsibility again for us and the next generation.
JL: When you go back to Quebec, what will you be declaring to customs from Vermont?
PC: Today, I didn’t have a lot of time to shop, I’m afraid, but I did shop before, privately. So I want to re-assure listeners I did my share. But today, there was no time at all for shopping, unfortunately.