Monique Jérôme-Forget was President of the IRPP from 1991 to 1998, which makes her the Institute’s longest-serving president. Before that she was Assistant Deputy Minister of Health and Welfare in Ottawa, President of Quebec’s commission for Worker Health and Safety, vice-rector for finance at Concordia University and chairman of the OECD’s committee on social policy. In November 1998, Mme. Jérôme-Forget was elected to Quebec’s National Assembly, where she currently serves as the Opposition critic for finance. Policy Options editor William Watson talked to Mme. Jérôme-Forget on April 13, 2002.
William Watson: When did you first become acquainted with the IRPP?
Monique Jérôme-Forget: Basically from its beginning, when it was first set up. I followed the various studies they pro- duced. I lost track a bit at one point, being more involved in health care and education. But then I was back into contact, especially, when I was approached for the job of president, which I took for seven years in fact.
William Watson: What problems faced you when you arrived at IRPP?
Monique Jérôme-Forget: My first mandate was to consolidate the Institute. There were a number of offices across the country ”” in Halifax, Quebec City, Ottawa, B.C. ”” and the annual budget was much lower than when I left. So the board asked me to consolidate. We first set our office in Ottawa to develop the research and build synergy within the organization. We then moved from Ottawa to Montreal because the Institute was perceived as being an arm of the federal government. And in fact while in Ottawa, I was often asked which department was funding me. It was very difficult, so long as we were in Ottawa, to be separate from the govern- ment and to be perceived as such.
The second reason for the move was that a number of people on the board felt that when the Institute was originally created and set up, it was set up to be in Montreal, and therefore that’s where it should go. There was also the feeling that in Ottawa the fed- eral government is big, that you soon become the shadow of whatever it is undertaking. In addition, Montreal is a truly bilingual city. I certainly endorsed the decision. I had had a discussion with Tom Kierans of the C.D. Howe Institute. Since he was in Toronto, it would be appropriate if the IRPP were to move to Montreal.
So basically that’s how I got to move and to consolidate in one place. William Watson: And you were quite happy with that?
Monique Jérôme-Forget: Yes, I was happy. But let’s be very clear. In my life I have spent a lot of time out of Montreal. I now live in Quebec City a good deal. And I lived in Ottawa when I was an assistant deputy minister. So it was not a personal choice to be in Montreal. In addition there were four universities in Montreal. I quickly estab- lished a close link with McGill. And Montreal definitely has a bilingual status. So it was a good place to establish an institute like the IRPP, which is a national institute and a flagship for Canada, a bilingual country. While the IRPP produces most of its work in English, it operates in a very bilingual way internally. In other words, it always has taken into consideration that attrib- ute of the country, which makes Canada the Canada we know.
William Watson: I want to talk about how you see think-tanks now, and how you saw them when you became president of the IRPP. When you walked into the job, what was your view of what a think-tank should be doing? And then we can talk a little bit later about how you see them now, as a practicing politician.
Monique Jérôme-Forget: When I first became president of the IRPP, the board had a long debate ”” a whole day of strategic planning ”” following two days of meeting with various players across the country, including a day-long meeting in Toronto with senior opin- ion leaders. The debate rested on the kind of research to undertake: should we go for long-term research, or more immediate, short-term debates? There was a wish to opt for long-term research, but I think that was dreaming in technicolour. To be able to undertake fundamental research you need far more money than Canadian think- tanks can now dispose of. The Rand Corporation can do, and does, long-term research. But if you’re the IRPP, or C.D. Howe, for that matter, you don’t have the resources to do the kind of work that could really build on a long-term view. When I first came, we provided the services of a publishing house. Whoever produced a good book, we would edit and publish. There’s nothing wrong with that, and we did a good job of it.
Instead though we decided to set our very own fields of research, no more than four or five themes, and to focus on these with external researchers, because of the limited amount of funding we had. So most of the work was done outside the Institute, on a contractual basis, calling upon academics most of the time.
William Watson: So you were leaning in the direction of longer term.
Monique Jérôme-Forget: We would have liked to do it, but we decided we couldn’t financially support long-term research. Following a long board meeting, we opted to follow the pattern of the C.D. Howe Institute, though focusing on social policy.
William Watson: What were the big issues you took on?
Monique Jérôme-Forget: Some of the work focused on Quebec-Canada relations. We also did work on employment and income security. France St-Hilaire did some work which led Pierre Lefebvre and Philippe Merigan to follow up on family issues. We did touch the constitutional problem. Being located in Quebec we could provide different perspectives. At the same time, C.D. Howe also produced a series showing the pitfalls if Quebec left Canada, such as losing their passport. I don’t think that building fear works though. I’m not sure our papers were very helpful, even though they were still used after the Charlottetown conference. Those papers were called upon well after the debate was over.
William Watson: I talked to Gordon Robertson, who was President of the IRPP during the first Quebec referendum. His feeling was that the IRPP didn’t have very much to add to what both the federal government and the Quebec government were going to be providing in the way of information. Was that your feeling as well?
Monique Jérôme-Forget: Well, one of the biggest problems for think-tanks is that the composition of their boards makes it difficult to take a position. Canadian think-tanks are often luke-warm about taking a strong stand over certain issues. This may not be avoidable, but the unfortunate part is that you are left with the publication of a study which the Institute really does not fully endorse. It ends up being the view of the person who wrote it. We’re happy if we get coverage in the media, but have we changed anything? I doubt it.
This raises the issue of whether think-tanks have an impact. I do believe that both the C.D. Howe and the IRPP played a major role at one point, and that was with the Free Trade Agreement. Dick Lipsey and Murray Smith were on television practically every night advocating the merit of this Agreement. The problem is that some board members will disagree with the view expressed. For instance, when I came to the Institute a number of board members were strongly against the free trade. And therefore you devel- op the strategy that this study belongs to this person, and is not necessarily the view of the institute.
William Watson: Of course, the press doesn’t notice that distinction at all.
Monique Jérôme-Forget: That’s true, the press often doesn’t notice the dis- tinction, but the unfortunate thing is that think-tanks are not forceful enough. Once it produces a study ”” and I include most think-tanks ”” there isn’t a strategy to sell the idea, as Dick Lipsey did with the Free Trade Agreement. He went to Ottawa, spoke to the opposition, met with MPs individually and decided to force the issue. We are in a similar situation right now. Health care is the number one issue in Canada. And if it isn’t, it’s cer- tainly very important. Well, who is coming out with relevant policy sug- gestions on health care reform? Don Mazankowski, hired by the Alberta government, will have more impact ”” greater than anything that think-tanks have had. As President of IRPP, I definitely did not push hard enough to adopt a strong view on one or two issues. We could have been more involved””this was after my leaving, but I am not sure it would have been any different had I still been presi- dent””on the merger of Toronto, for instance. We were doing a lot of work on cities, and yet we didn’t get involved in the public debate. During the merger of Montreal, as well, the IRPP was not at the forefront. And I think that was, in a way, sad, because the Institute had invested a lot of resources in building a story around the importance of cities and their role and financing.
On another issue ”” I have in mind the ”œgarderies à $5” ”” Pierre Lefebvre and Philip Merigan did a very good study on the issue of who benefits from these $5-a-day childcare spaces. It was mostly well-off parents. In fact, the poorest families were losing money. And they documented that fact very well. But of course the political appeal of $5-a-day was so great that we still have it and in fact people believe it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Except that we’re still missing 50,000 spaces for parents who have children but have nowhere to go. The Institute was too detached. We had a debate with the then-minister, Pauline Marois. We wrote articles, she answered. But it’s as if we didn’t have the conviction to go at it in a forceful way.
William Watson: I’m sure your view that think-tanks should be engaged directly in the process is stronger now that you’re in politics yourself.
Monique Jérôme-Forget: I feel very strongly about think-tanks being involved. You see, politicians have an agenda ”” to get elected ”” this is democracy. A think-tank doesn’t have to look for support. It doesn’t need that.
So I find that the think-tanks have a major role to play. Among all the think tanks we have, the IRPP is certainly one of the most solid and best positioned to engage in out-of-the-box thinking ”” on health care and on other things. As for the IRPP, I think this is the best think-tank in Canada. I think it has a great future, it has certainly a great president right now. He is very visible and very outgoing and very energetic. And on the special occasion of its 30th birthday, I certainly wish IRPP a long, long life.