Hydro Quebec doesn’t belong to you & other Quebec curios

The Hydro Quebec building, an iconic building on the Montreal skyline. Photo by llahbocaj/Flickr. The Hydro Quebec building, an iconic building on the Montreal skyline. Photo by llahbocaj/Flickr.

Maybe Marx was right. (I can hear my former political science teacher saying/yelling “OF COURSE HE IS!!!”) Or, in one regard, maybe he was right about the idea of communal property. After all, doesn’t it bring a warm and fuzzy feeling when those Hydro Quebec/CBC/Canada Post/Grande Bibliothèque/etc. commercials come on saying that the institution is “ours”? (Rainbows, sparkles, and flowers optional.) Well, wrong. Capitalism and the state strike again. In actual fact, Hydro Quebec and all those aforementioned instituions belong to the government; CBC and Canada Post by the federal and Hydro Quebec and the Grande Bibliothèque by the provincial. And you don’t own the government. All you do is pay taxes, but that doesn’t equate with owning the government. (Or does it…?)

In Quebec law, notably, the government, termed the State to differentiate itself from its legislative dimension (termed, logically, the Legislative), can exercise actions and do things just like normal people can, such as own buildings, own companies, and make contracts. So while you can also term Hydro Quebec a publicly owned corporation, in a sense, it’s a slight misnomer, as it doesn’t belong to the public: it belongs to the State. The companies owned by individual provinces or by the federal government are called Crown corporations. Even Hydro Quebec: Crown corporations are the typical name given to State-owned corporations that reside within the British Commonwealth.

Hydro Quebec preceded the Quiet Revolution, but was indeed a two-step process: the first step was its formation by the little spoken of, but highly influential, Adélard Godbout government in 1944 (the World War II government that took power between the two term Union Nationale Duplessis government). The bill was to create the corporation was drafted by future Supreme Court justice, then professor of constitutional law at the University of Laval, Louis-Philippe Pigeon, and contained a genius clause: that Hydro Quebec would be able to procure shares of other hydroelectricity competitors. It would be this clause that would allow the second step of the takeover in the 1960s. The clause helped the Lesage government, with the aid of the new Minister of Natural Resources, René Lévesque, to virtually buy out all of the other competing private hydroelectricity companies to create a national corporation. Hydroelectricity produces almost 97% of Quebec’s electricity supply.

While Hydro Quebec was a private corporation that became government-owned, it’s also interesting to note that corporations can go from public to private. Air Canada is one such example, but that’s another story. I wonder what Marx might have thought. (To which, inevitably, my teacher would add: “Typical bourgeois!”)

Got a history or legal question for T.A. Wellington? Send it to bookclub@montrealramapge.com

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