The Impact of Industrial Policies on Québec’s Electricity Industry

With the energy transition, Québec is currently at a turning point reminiscent of the period following the Quiet Revolution, in the 1960s and 1970s, when successive Unionist, Liberal and PQ governments initiated the development of the Manic-Outardes project, which doubled Québec’s electricity generation capacity, and then Churchill Falls (Labrador) and James Bay, which doubled it again. Today, there is again talk of doubling by 2050. But increasing Hydro Québec’s generation capacity was not the only highlight of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1960s and 1970s, governments also used the construction of major hydro plants to enable French-speaking Quebecers to take control of the province’s economic development. This economic development occurred both in the secondary sector (electrical equipment manufacturing and aluminum smelters) and in the tertiary sector (large consulting engineering firms and, a little later, in information technology).

We can still hear the echoes of this decision because there are about 65,000 jobs related to the electricity industry, only a third of which are at Hydro-Québec.

Québec is now Canada’s electrical manufacturing hub: we have 36.3% of Canadian electrical manufacturing jobs, but only 22.7% of total Canadian manufacturing jobs. In other words, we have proportionally twice as many jobs in electrical equipment manufacturing as Canada outside Québec. This includes the manufacture of electrical power generation and systems, as well as appliances used by residential and commercial customers, such as heaters and advanced control systems.

Obviously, the impact of these industrial policies on the aluminum smelting industry is well known: it has experienced considerable growth, with 30,000 jobs.

And that’s not all: this period also saw the emergence of world-class Québec consulting engineering firms, some of which reached the top-10 in the world, such as SNC-Lavalin (AtkinsRéalis). Our consulting engineering firms are present throughout the value chain, from large dams to residential energy efficiency assessments.

In the 1970s, the industry’s need for control and management systems propelled the information technology sector — CGI, LGS, an IBM Company and DMR come to mind. In a way, it’s safe to say that even the artificial intelligence sector that Québec is now known for was driven by the electrification decisions made by our grandparents.