Two poles of power

The new Quebec-Ontario alliance is designed to counter the growing influence of the West


BARBARA YAFFE - Central Canada - particularly Ontario - has always been thought of as the nation's heartland where the lion's share of wealth, power and creativity reside.
Quebec and Ontario, together, have dibs on 181 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. As the fourth-largest regional economy in North America, they account for a shade under 60 per cent of the country's economic output. Fully 62 per cent of Canadians reside there.
British Columbia and Alberta are smaller in all ways. But they're endowed with unspeakably rich resources, pointing to an increasingly influential role within Confederation.
At present, B.C. and Alberta have 64 members of Parliament. Their combined output reflects close to 30 per cent of Canada's GDP and 24 per cent of the population live in the two provinces.
Of course, political power has already shifted westward, most noticeably in 2006 when a political party headed by a Calgarian took power in Ottawa.
B.C. and Alberta first mobilized to find common cause in April, 2006 when the two arranged "a partnership" through the B.C.-Alberta Trade, Industry and Labour Mobility Agreement, or TILMA. The TILMA website notes the deal created "the second-largest economic region in Canada," providing for joint cabinet meetings and co-ordinated action on energy, transportation, agriculture and investment.
(Interestingly, Alberta and B.C. have shied away from any co-ordinated action to address global warming because they're taking such divergent approaches. B.C. has opted for environmental activism while Alberta has not.)
Now, two years later, Ontario and Quebec are stepping forward to announce their own strategic alliance.
On Monday, premiers from the two provinces were in Quebec City presiding over what they called a historic joint cabinet meeting. They announced joint action on climate change, pledging to put in place a carbon cap-and-trade scheme for industry by 2010. The two also signed agreements to improve economic and social ties.
Premier Jean Charest pledged to deploy his province's bountiful hydroelectric resources to help Ontario rid itself of its dirty coal-fired electricity plants, with a new power line. "I'd rather sell this energy to a friend and family," remarked Charest.
Said Ontario's Dalton McGuinty: "Quebec is strong on its own. Ontario is strong on its own. But Central Canada is indeed a force to be reckoned with . . . . "
The Central Canadian partnership will be unlike its western-based counterpart in at least one important respect.
The westernmost provinces are led by conservative-minded premiers - Gordon Campbell and Ed Stelmach - who both have demonstrated an independent streak. They tend to eschew federal interference and believe their destiny is largely in their own hands. Accordingly, TILMA was created principally as a tool to grease the wheels of their respective economies rather than influence the feds.
By contrast, the Ontario-Quebec bloc - long accustomed to preferential treatment and mega-largesse from Ottawa -- appears poised to use its partnership as a big stick with which to whack the Harper crowd.
The duo largely feels hard done by at the hands of the current federal government. No significant help has been forthcoming for Ontario's and Quebec's struggling manufacturing sector. Infrastructure funding also has been difficult to come by.
And so, the first pronouncement by the new Central Canadian partners took direct aim at the Harper government's climate-change program. McGuinty and Charest castigated the federal plan as inadequate.
The trend toward provincial alliances grew naturally as energy-rich Alberta and B.C. have found common cause in their wealth and growing populations. But it's only recently the two, and subsequently Ontario and Quebec, have opted to formalize the dynamic.
Will these new partnerships spur other provinces to co-operate? Atlantic provincial premiers hold regular meetings, but with disparate economic interests and identities, they've never moved to act as one. Similarly, Manitoba and more energy-rich Saskatchewan seldom walk in tandem.
The two more organized voices in the centre and west of Canada can be expected to pull in opposing directions because when economic conditions at one end are strong, more often than not, they're weak at the other.
Two power blocs. Divergent interests. One federal government. Should be interesting.

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