Premier François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec government have expanded on this ambition since winning the 2018 election, pitching Hydro-Québec as everything from “the green battery of northeastern America” to a crucial balm for energy markets overstressed by the war in Ukraine. The Legault government has further sought to isolate and diminish the province’s energy oversight body, if only to have more control over electricity prices—and harvest the boffo political capital earned by dolling out electrons at bargain basement prices. Brochu’s mistake, if you can call it that, was to stand in the way.
Quebec electricity is cheap—about five times less than what the residents of San Francisco pay and four times less than rates big industry pays in Boston, by HQ’s own calculations. Hydro-Québec offers this power to industries it would like to attract to the province, as well as residential and commercial markets linked to its network. Its business case to the continent at large, as pitched by the province’s economy and innovation minister, Pierre Fitzgibbon, is a cocktail of legacy contracts guaranteeing cheap power for energy-intensive customers like aluminum smelters, along with agreements to transform minerals mined in Quebec—another industry heavily dependent on Hydro’s discounted wares.
You are reading: Sophie Brochu, and the truth about Quebec’s new power structure
Along with questioning the wisdom of selling power on the cheap, Brochu was given to attacking another sacred cow: the perceived right of Quebecers to be wastrels with the province’s bounty. Martel’s motto might have been “Dam, baby, dam.” Brochu’s was more, “Turn off the lights and maybe don’t heat the hot tub in winter.”
Legault hasn’t shown much enthusiasm to continue this corporate cleansing. If anything, he has ensured that Hydro-Québec is that much closer to the governmental bosom. Thanks to a law passed in 2019, the government effectively sidelined the Régie de l’énergie, the arm’s-length body charged with setting electricity rates. The effect is to give the government more latitude to raise and lower the price of electricity as it desires. “Now, the rates will have to be decided in the premier’s office,” Marcoux told me.
Martin Patriquin is The Logic’s Quebec correspondent. He joined in 2019 after 10 years as Quebec bureau chief for Maclean’s. A National Magazine Award and SABEW winner, he has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Walrus, Vice, BuzzFeed and The Globe and Mail, among others. He is also a panelist on CBC’s “Power & Politics.” @MartinPatriquin