Quebec's new finance minister faces tough challenges

by Gary Francoeur

Quebec’s new finance minister, Carlos Leitao, BA’79, has a way with numbers, but the province’s faltering economy wasn’t the only thing that propelled him into the political fray.

Leitao, who stepped down as chief economist at Laurentian Bank Securities to run in the April provincial election, says he was also concerned with the Parti Québécois’ proposed secular charter of values, a polarizing bill with unsettling implications for immigrants and visible minorities.

“I felt that [the PQ government] were heading in a dangerous direction and engaging in very divisive politics,” says Leitao, who is himself a Portuguese immigrant. “I said, ‘OK, this is it. I need to jump in now. This doesn’t make any sense.’”

Replacing departing Liberal MNA Pierre Marsan, Leitao ran in the Robert Baldwin riding in Montreal’s West Island, receiving more than 87 per cent of the votes, and becoming one of a dozen McGill graduates to earn seats in the Quebec National Assembly. When Premier Philippe Couillard named him minister of finance a few weeks later, Leitao became one of the most important members of the new Quebec government. No doubt, he’ll be dealing with a fellow McGill alum in his new position – federal finance minister Joe Oliver, BA’61, BCL’64.

Leitao described the 33-day electoral campaign as “a rude awakening” to the political process, but he knows the real work will be in trying to right Quebec’s teetering financial ship. Of utmost importance, he explains, is to manage the province’s public debt and address its rapidly declining labour force.

“When you have a high level of public debt and at the same time a nearly stagnant economy, it can be a recipe for disaster,” he says. “We need to find ways to become more efficient and more productive to ensure that economic growth accelerates to offset this demographic shock and manage our large level of debt.”

Of course, Leitao adds quickly, that is much easier said than done, but it is precisely what he wants to set in motion when the Couillard government unveils its first budget. One of the government’s priorities, he says, is to introduce a fundamental tax reform package that will simplify the current system and make Quebec a more attractive investment destination for businesses.

The government may also have to make some difficult decisions in terms of spending and plans to conduct an exhaustive audit of all its social programs, Leitao explains.

“This won’t be a budget that will solve all of our problems overnight, but it will set the direction in which we want to go to make sure we accomplish that,” he says.

Leitao came to Canada in 1975 with his family to escape the instability triggered by a military coup in Portugal. Though he had been a student at the University of Lisbon at the time, he was unable to take his academic transcripts with him due to the upheaval, and he says McGill was the only university in Montreal willing to accommodate him regardless.

“McGill had a special program in place to help integrate foreign students, help me choose classes and show me around campus. It was all very organized,” he explains.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in economics from McGill, Leitao spent more than 30 years working in the financial and banking sectors, serving in several positions at the Royal Bank of Canada before becoming chief economist for Laurentian Bank Securities. In 2008, he was ranked as the world’s second best economist by Bloomberg News.

The federal Liberal Party's citizenship and immigration critic John McCallum, PhD’77, a former McGill dean of arts who was once Leitao’s boss at Royal Bank, believes that his former colleague will excel at this new role.

“He has a good mind as an economist and thinks things through from an economic point-of-view,” McCallum says. “He is a conscientious, hardworking individual and those traits are important for a finance minister.”

Leitao won’t be the only McGill graduate sitting around the cabinet table. Geoffrey Kelley, BA’81, MA’85, is Quebec’s new native affairs minister, while Kathleen Weil, BA’78, BCL’82, LLB’82, is the new minister of immigration, diversity and inclusiveness.

Other McGill alums who were elected to the National Assembly as Liberals include Rita de Santis, BSc’76, BCL’80, François Ouimet, BCL’88, LLB’88, Saul Polo, GradCert(Int’lBus)’02, Grad Cert(Treasury/Fin)’03, and Gerry Sklavounos, BCL’98, LLB’98. McGillians are also well represented among the opposition. Véronique Hivon, BCL’94, LLB’94, and Martine Ouellet, BEng’92, are MNAs for the Parti Québécois, Amir Khadir, MSc’87, will represent the Mercier riding on behalf of Québec solidaire, and Christian Dubé, BEng’93, and Claire Samson, MSc’86, hold seats for the Coalition Avenir du Québec.

Leitao says he is eager for the challenges ahead, and he credits his experience at McGill with providing him with the skills necessary to integrate into Canadian life and to succeed professionally.

“Certainly, everyone knows about the quality of a McGill education, but the fact that it has such an international aspect to it is just as important,” he says. “I was put in contact with students from many different countries, which really helped to open my horizons. The fact that McGill was so open to the world – especially at that time – was priceless.”