Bashing Western Canada, once again

Québec c. Canada - le Québec entravé

One of the points I was trying to make in last week’s column, in general support of Pierre Trudeau’s efforts to make both official languages present in all parts of the country, was that in any federal state, some concessions to particular regional concerns are necessary or the country will fall apart, or even atomize. In a little over a century, this fate has split Norway from Sweden, Singapore from Malaysia, Bangladesh from Pakistan, the Czechs from the Slovaks and, most painfully, the Sudanese and South Sudanese.
This was what made the Quebec separatist threat so dangerous; though there was never much prospect of heavy violence, there was a danger of the permanent diminution of the country after a prolonged and immobilizing constitutional crisis. Of course, the separatist leaders greatly and treacherously underestimated the complexities and problems of any such step, and aggravated the problem with trick referendum questions about seeking authority to negotiate sovereignty and association with Canada: Simultaneously to eat and retain the same rich cake. My fear in those days was that the federal Progressive Conservative leaders, Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark, were men of such goodwill, but such limited familiarity with the devious Quebec nationalists and with the French language, that they could not win the federalist argument in Quebec. Trudeau thus emerged as the temporarily indispensable horse for that race.

There were zealous regionalists in all parts of the country; including Westerners who professed to feel culturally oppressed at the presence of any language but English on commercial packaging, to match the French Quebec racists equally outraged at even bilingual commercial signs or supermarket product identifications. Trudeau managed to continue the Liberal practice of selling his party and himself as essential to Quebec to make Confederation work for it, and to Ontario for keeping Quebec in “its place,” i.e. in a bonne entente Canada to the conciliationists, and in relatively untroublesome acquiescence in a federally governed Canada to those less full of fraternal feeling for our French-speaking compatriots. In fairness, the Progressive Conservatives supported these policies throughout, but until Brian Mulroney, were never plausible at executing them as well as the Liberals did.
But deft as he was with Quebec, Trudeau failed to show the same quality of judgment in dealing with legitimate Western sensibilities.
The National Energy Program of 1981 was based on vertiginous suppositions of oil-price increases that proved to be decades premature, and it was just a confiscation of Western and Newfoundland income and cancellation of much exploration activity. Billions of dollars of danegeld was extracted, disproportionately from Alberta, to steady Quebec as it wavered, partly from the long-suppressed temptations of sovereign nationhood and partly from Quebec’s ancient talent at jurisdictional political poker playing.
From Louis Hipolyte Lafontaine and George-Étienne Cartier and the so-called United Province of Canada (designed by the British to assimilate French Canadians), to recent days, Quebec has always politically punched above its weight in Canada. From the rise of Laurier in 1896 to the departure of Paul Martin 110 years later, bilingual Quebeckers were prime ministers of Canada for 61 of those years; and in the 22 years of Mackenzie King, Ernest Lapointe and then Louis St. Laurent were virtually co-prime ministers in all matters affecting French Canada. And for almost all of that time, Quebec had strong political leadership within the province, tussling jurisdictionally with Ottawa regardless of political affiliations of the Federal and Quebec governments.

‘Deft as he was with Quebec, Trudeau failed to show the same quality of judgment in dealing with legitimate Western sensibilities’

Through most of the history of Confederation, enlightened Ontario leaders, including Leslie Frost, John Robarts, Bill Davis, David Peterson, Bob Rae and Mike Harris, were a constant and powerful force for regional conciliation, providing most of the transfer payments for the placation of Quebec, while being a predominantly English-speaking province maintaining good relations with all parties in the federal-provincial tug of war.
It was, as I tried to stress last week, a delicate balance, but a fairly rugged and adaptable mechanism that saw the country through its most difficult constitutional passages, in the World Wars and the separatist threat.
The heavy defeat of the post-Mulroney Progressive Conservatives by the Bloc Québécois in that province and the Reform Party in the West enabled the Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin to enjoy an Indian Summer as the natural party of government. But they could do this only as long as the opposition was divided among the NDP, the Bloc, Reform and the continuing PCs. The unification of the centre-right and the NDP’s decimation of the Bloc Québécois in 2011 now have tipped the scales to the Conservatives and fragmented the centre-left. And both the Liberals and the NDP, rightly proud of their conciliatory history in bicultural matters, are now showing unbecoming signs of demagoguery.
The Copenhagen Environmental Conference of 2009 was probably the most inane and redundant international conference in all history, as every climate alarmist capable of crawling to a television studio or buttonholing a journalist (except perhaps for Canada’s inimitable Gwyn Dyer), competed in foreseeing the imminence, almost literally, of the fall of the sky. But more demeaning by far at Copenhagen was the spectacle of the premiers of Canada’s two most populous provinces, Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest, attacking Alberta’s oil sands in that over-suggestible ideological environment infested by kooks and charlatans.
The oil sands must be developed, and a pipeline built either into the U.S. or to the West Coast to transport the oil to market. These projects must be managed with great care for the environment. But Canada’s manifest destiny as an energy exporter cannot be held hostage by eco-terrorists, nor by the economic growth of one Canadian region being stunted by the slovenly dependence of other regions on an artificially depreciated Canadian dollar. Intra-Canadian partisanship and regional rivalries must end at the border and the water’s edge.
The antics of McGuinty, who has led Ontario from the commanding heights almost to the low-rent district of the Canadian economy, blaming the prosperity of Alberta for raising the value of the Canadian dollar and inconveniencing Ontario, is an outrage. The new federal NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, has been uttering something perilously close to the same inexcusable flimflam. Alberta, per capita, has done more than any other province to carry the cost of federalism, including oceanic largesse to Quebec. And all Canadians should rejoice at the prospect of Canada becoming a world energy giant, especially as it entails the prosperity of Newfoundland after centuries of economic struggle, and also the flowering of the hydroelectric wealth and technical sophistication of Quebec.
To do otherwise would amount to contemptible regional back-biting, shaming to the higher traditions of the political parties of McGuinty, Charest, and Mulcair, and more reprehensible than churlish crabbing, in English or French, about bilingualism. Unfortunately, Pierre Trudeau, a principal conservator of Canada, is also in some measure, the father of this bad policy seed.
National Post

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