Quebec Weekly News: January 12, 2024

Happy New Year & welcome back to the Quebec News and Updates Newsletter. This week, MNAs returned to their constituency work.

Here's what to expect at the National Assembly in 2024

In 2024, the Legault government in Quebec aims to recover from a slump and regain public support but faces challenges as public services are on the brink of collapse. Minister Christian Dubé is responsible for implementing Santé Québec, a state-run entity managing healthcare operations, following his health network reform. Its top officials are expected to be announced in the spring. Simultaneously, Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault plans to propose legislation for a new agency to independently manage the province’s major infrastructure and public transportation projects. Labour Minister Jean Boulet is working to modernize the construction industry by allowing task sharing amidst various trades to reduce delays and costs.

Energy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon will introduce a bill for clean energy usage to address the anticipated electricity shortage, focusing on consumer habit changes without heavy-handed measures. Hydro-Québec intends to promote efficient electricity use, while Premier François Legault promised to cap residential electricity bill increases at 3% annually. Meanwhile, a plan to protect the French language, promised by Minister Jean-François Roberge, is pending. In politics, the Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) is preparing for a leadership race that could see candidates emerge this year, with Frédéric Beauchemin expressing interest despite prior allegations of psychological harassment.

Time is Legault's ally

The fortunes of François Legault and his party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), have seen a dramatic downturn over the year, recognized by Legault himself as the parliamentary session adjourned for the holiday break. Following a solid majority re-election win, where CAQ secured 89 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly, they have now fallen behind the Parti Québécois (PQ) in public opinion polls. The loss of the Jean-Talon seat to the PQ appeared to shake Legault. Challenges for the CAQ came from unexpected quarters, beyond the anticipated criticism of sweeping health and education reforms and public sector negotiations, including issues like the SAAQclic saga, an increase in deputies’ salaries, and controversies over certain subsidies.

 

Some in the CAQ consider Legault a reformer and expect credit for boldly tackling health and education network reforms. As elections are not until 2026, and with significant CAQ promises set to materialize in the coming months, including top appointments at Santé Québec and the launch of a new educational institute, Legault has some time to regain his footing before the National Assembly reconvenes in February. Meanwhile, Legault’s candid leadership style has faced criticism, particularly surrounding emotive comments on educational strikes and missteps in predicting the end of strikes in reality. These incidents mark the end of what is considered the CAQ’s worst sequence since coming to power.

Public sector negotiations: $11 billion more to pay civil servants

Quebec is facing an additional annual expenditure of 11 billion CAD due to salary increases settled between the Common Front (Front commun) union coalition and the Legault government. The proposed agreement, reached at the end of December, stipulates a 17.4% wage increase over five years. This increase will raise the state’s spending on employee salaries to 70 billion CAD annually, accounting for 60.8% of the government’s total expenses of 115 billion CAD.

The agreement, to be ratified by voting among the Common Front members between January 15 and February 19, includes not only pay rises but also a provision to protect purchasing power in the last three years of the work contract. It also improves pension schemes and parental rights regulations. The success of the deal is not assured, as demonstrated by the Quebec police force’s rejection of a similar agreement last September. Approval by over 50% of the 420,000 health and education sector workers represented is required for the deal to become a collective agreement.

Former Montreal mayor and Liberal MP Denis Coderre considers Liberal leadership bid

Former Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre is seriously considering a bid for the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) and is actively seeking support. Sources confirmed that Coderre, a former federal minister for the Liberal Party of Canada, has been contacting influential party members to gauge support for his potential candidacy and is trying to assemble a campaign team. Currently, there seems to be little interest for Coderre’s candidacy within the caucus, and only MP Frédéric Beauchemin is seen as a potential leadership candidate. The PLQ is facing plummeting support following a historic defeat in 2022, achieving its worst result in 155 years.

Coderre, after two mayoral defeats and recovering from a stroke last April, hinted at his continued interest in politics but declined interviews, redirecting to his radio segment for updates. The interim leader of the PLQ and party officials have refrained from commenting on his potential candidacy to maintain the impartiality of the leadership race.

Quebec Government wants to allow other cities to impose a tax to finance public transit

The Quebec government is looking to empower more cities to impose an additional car registration tax to better fund public transport, following requests by the cities of Québec and Lévis. Previously, only drivers in Montréal paid a surcharge, collected by Société d’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ), to fund public transportation. This tax will also be imposed on drivers in North and South Montréal from 2024. Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault, who is in disputes with numerous transport societies and mayors struggling to finance public transport, did not comment on whether this was a viable solution. Last month, Guilbault announced that the government would cover 70% of the deficits of the province’s ten public transportation societies in 2024.

Santé Québec: the transition begins

Quebec’s Health Minister Christian Dubé has selected an 11-member transition committee to establish Santé Québec, the new government agency tasked with managing daily healthcare operations. This committee includes notable figures like ex-CEO of CHU Sainte-Justine, Caroline Barbir, and the former head of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, Daniel Paré. The group, featuring a mix of professionals including former regional managers, a nurse, and a user committee representative, is set to hold its first meeting shortly. As their mandate, they’ll coordinate the transition, ensure alignment with “Bill 15,” and provide advice regarding Santé Québec.

By the end of autumn, all health network establishments are expected to be integrated into Santé Québec, with the executive team appointed in the summer. The CEO of Santé Québec, with a base salary of CAD 543,000, is to be appointed by April. The call for applications is opening next week, with a March 1 deadline for candidates. The creation of Santé Québec was confirmed on December 9 with the passing of Bill 15, aiming to enhance efficiency in the healthcare system while MSSS will oversee broader health policies. The transition committee’s mandate was approved by the cabinet on December 20.

Ministry of Environment issues first ministerial authorization to Northvolt

The Environment Ministry granted Northvolt preliminary approval on January 8 for its battery material production project on a former explosives manufacturing site, adhering to industrial zoning regulations. The ministry’s analysis confirmed minimal encroachment on sensitive areas, including watercourses, flood zones, and potential breeding habitats for certain species. Northvolt is obliged to offer financial compensation for any environmental impacts, particularly on wetlands and water bodies.

The company must also enhance or preserve natural habitats equivalent to the impacted areas, including a 30-50 hectare conservation area outside the project site. These commitments must be reviewed and approved by the ministry within 36 months. Northvolt’s future construction and operation will require further ministerial authorizations under environmental laws, and the ministry will enforce environmental control throughout the process. The site will house Northvolt’s electric vehicle battery component production and recycling complex, but the current approval does not cover the recycling facility area, pending an environmental impact assessment process.

Minister Bernard Drainville announces a school catch-up plan

Quebec’s Education Minister Bernard Drainville announced a $300 million academic recovery plan to support student success amid educational setbacks. This plan includes tutoring beyond regular school hours, specialized assistance for students with specific needs, additional French language support for immigrant students, and free summer courses for 4th and 5th-year secondary students. An emergency fund will also support educational organizations, and recovery activities may be offered during spring break. Schools and educational centers have the flexibility to implement these recovery initiatives according to local needs, which they are tasked to plan by the end of January 2024.

Additionally, the government proposes changes to the academic calendar and ministerial exams, including a potential delay of up to seven days for year-end exams, reduced weighting for these exams, and a guide for priority learning content. The deadline for mid-year report cards may be pushed from March 15 to 28 to provide more time for teaching and catch-up. The recovery plan’s implementation will begin with evaluations in early January, followed by communication with parents and the launch of support measures by the end of the month.

Quebec Health Agency's future CEO to earn $543,000

The future CEO of Santé Québec, a new agency responsible for the operational aspects of the province’s healthcare system, is set to receive a salary of CAD 543,000, with additional performance incentives. This pay is double that of the Prime Minister of Quebec, François Legault. Minister Christian Dubé emphasized the importance of attracting a high-calibre individual from the private sector to revamp the healthcare system, often referring to the ideal candidate as a “top gun.” The CEO will lead over 300,000 health and social service employees across various facilities.

While the position will be advertised mid-January with an independent committee reviewing applications, the final decision will be made by the cabinet. The agency’s top executives will be among the highest-paid in Quebec’s public sector, and although initially there was mention of providing a driver—a benefit available to ministers—the ministry later said there would only be a travel allowance. This hiring decision comes amidst reforms aiming to streamline health services, facing criticism from unions and political opponents for promoting excessive private sector pay practices and potential privatization of services.

A turbulent year for Hydro-Québec

The year at Hydro-Québec, the state-owned electric utility, was turbulent with skyrocketing demand for clean electricity and inadequate supply forcing government prioritization. Following the shocking resignation of CEO Sophie Brochu over disagreements on power use with Energy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon, their focus shifted to bridging the massive energy gap. Brochu’s legacy includes a historic export deal with New York and the acquisition of hydroelectric plants in New England. Under Michael Sabia, the new CEO, Hydro-Québec plans to spend $185 billion by 2035 to improve services, amidst record outage lengths and a backlog of customers awaiting connections.

Controversial policies cap electricity tariffs and potentially open production to private firms, prompting fears of partial privatization, yet some see opportunities in private collaboration. As Quebec aims to triple wind capacity, conflicts with residents loom. Hydro-Québec’s energy sobriety in 2024 suggests incentivizing reduced consumption, with the Premier vowing not to increase citizen rates above 3%. Ambitious energy efficiency plans are set to save 3500 MW by 2035.

Slowdown in the electrical sector: Nemaska Lithium won’t slow the pace

Nemaska Lithium, a key player in Quebec’s electrical industry, continues its unabated operations despite a tougher climate with project delays worldwide. Sarah Maryssael of Arcadium Lithium, which emerged in January after merging Livent and Allkem and has ties to Nemaska Lithium, remains optimistic about ongoing positive discussions with manufacturers. Amidst economic slowdown and lithium price falls, Nemaska Lithium is pursuing its ambitions to produce lithium hydroxide—crucial for electric vehicle batteries.

The company aims to process lithium from the Whabouchi mine and capitalize on projected long-term production demands. With costs estimated at roughly 2 billion USD for mining and production in Bécancour, the Quebec government has pledged up to 425 million. Arcadium’s Baie-James lithium mine project has also received environmental clearance. Maryssael calls for government support equal to that which battery component manufacturers receive, emphasizing the need to expand refining capacity to meet demands.

Arcadium Lithium at a glance

  • Established: 2024
  • Segments: Lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, spodumene, specialized lithium products
  • Workforce: Over 2600 globally
  • Projects: 13
  • Global presence: Canada, US, Argentina, Australia, China, Japan

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Quebec Weekly New: An overview of the weekly news and updates coming out of Quebec for the weeks from December 22, 2023. - January 12, 2024​ Written by Félix Lachance.

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