Regionalism and nationalism in Canada – a reassessment (Part Three)
By Mark Wegierski
Toronto, while being the capital of the province of Ontario, is not the political capital of Canada. Around the time of Confederation, Ottawa was deliberately chosen to be -- in a pattern seen in the case of such instances as Washington D.C., Canberra, and Brasilia -- the political capital of Canada. Ottawa lies on the border between Ontario and Quebec, in the heart of Central Canada. Much of the so-called “political nationality” of Canadian identity (such as it remains today) focusses on the magnificent buildings and interiors on Parliament Hill, which could be seen as very “sacred” political spaces. However, most of Ottawa could be characterized by its fairly architecturally drab administrative buildings that extend out in all directions beyond Parliament Hill. The political capital could be typified more as a town of civil-service “mandarins” and bureaucrats – the so-called “permanent government” – rather than elected Members of Parliament.
When Western Canadian politicians such as Preston Manning referred to “Ottawa” it was with a considerable degree of disdain. What Preston Manning probably was objecting to most, was the notion that the federal government was “owned by” the Liberal Party (who increasingly called themselves “the natural governing party of Canada”). “Ottawa” was the nexus of the vast federal bureaucracy, that believed itself to be bringing “progress” to the “benighted” corners of the country, and most especially to the highly recalcitrant province of Alberta.
The Liberal Party of Jean Chretien between 1993 to 2003 was, it could be argued, extremely “Ontario-centric”. Indeed, in the federal elections of 1993, 1997, and 2000, Ontario delivered virtually 100% of its seats to the Liberal Party. It could have been considerably embittering to Preston Manning that the Reform Party had been permanently tagged with the “regional party” label – and that no conciliatory gestures or professions of moderation could persuade a considerable percentage of the Ontario electorate to vote for the Reform Party. Indeed, a considerable percentage of the Ontario electorate was easily persuaded by Liberal stereotypes about the Reform Party – considering Preston Manning “scary” or “creepy”. In an attempt at “re-branding” Preston Manning initiated the United Alternative movement, which led to the creation of the Canadian Alliance (whose full official name was the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance). Stockwell Day, the former Treasurer of Alberta, defeated Preston Manning for the leadership of the newly-formed Canadian Alliance. However, in the November 2000 federal election, Stockwell Day -- while ostensibly far more “telegenic” than Manning – was written off as a “Christian fundamentalist extremist” by most Ontario voters.
Western Canadians (and especially Albertans) had been traumatized in the early 1980s by Trudeau’s “National Energy Program” (NEP) which they saw as a naked power-grab at Alberta’s oil wealth. Trudeau's NEP, geared to Central Canadian interests, had prevented the development of Western Canadian oil reserves at a time when it was fortuitous to do so, because of the booming oil market. Their full development had been delayed for decades.
Spokespersons for Western Canadian regionalist tendencies had often complained that there are no constitutional mechanisms (like the Senate in the United States, to which every U.S. state elects the same number of Senators), to prevent the less populous regions (i.e., the West and the Atlantic region), from being dominated and ruled in the interests of Central Canada.
It is also interesting that Australia, which is also a Commonwealth country with a federal system, has developed comparable tensions between the central government in Canberra, and the regions. Coincidentally, there had been a grab for the resources of Western Australia, which had been scotched by the different constitutional structures of Australia. It is somewhat amusing that one of the cities in Western Australia – and a hotbed of resistance to Canberra – is called Kalgoorlie. Later, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation movement had obtained most of its electoral support from Queensland (in the north-east).
In November 1987, simmering Western Canadian alienation resulted in a bringing together of various Western Canadian political activists, in the founding assembly of what was to become the Reform Party. They were led by Preston Manning, who was the son of former, long time Alberta Premier Ernest C. Manning. One of the Reform Party's main planks was the so-called "Triple-E Senate" -- elected, equal, and effective. (By "equal" was meant that each province or region would have the same number of seats in the Senate.)
The Canadian Senate is currently made up of persons appointed by the Prime Minister of the day, with some degree of consultation with the provinces. While it is considered a house of "sober, second thought", its powers are residual, and much of its authority has been undermined by the blatant partisanship of most of the appointments. There is now a mandatory retirement age of 75 for Canadian Senators. Stephen Harper made headlines when he appointed a so-called “elected” Senator from Alberta. Since provinces have a consultative role in the selection of Senators, they can stage an informal selection process including a province-wide vote on a short-list of candidates, to choose which person they want to represent them in the Senate. However, such procedures are not, strictly-speaking, legally binding on the Prime Minister. The length of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s years in office from 1993 to 2003 meant that he was able to appoint a huge number of Senators.
The callousness with which Mulroney treated Atlantic, and especially Western Canada, showed both basic ignorance, and a narrow, self-serving, parochial vision, rather than one of truly national unity and purpose. One especially remembers the awarding of the huge federal aircraft maintenance contract to Quebec firm Bombardier, rather than the Winnipeg firm whose tender was apparently markedly superior. The effect of Mulroney’s government was often to play up and exacerbate existing economic and power disparities. However, his attempts to gain Western Canadian favour by the quick cancellation of the NEP, by some major “industrial strategy”-type government support programs, as well as, especially, by the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, allowed him to hold on to much of Western Canadian support in the 1988 federal election. However, when the Reform Party became more firmly established, by the time of the 1993 federal election, they swept most of Western Canada, especially Alberta. It could be argued that perhaps some cultural issues being raised by the Reform Party (such as its mildly expressed ideas for some tempering of multiculturalism and high immigration policies), possessed far greater salience for many in Western Canada, than the putative, purely economic benefits being offered by the federal P.C.s.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.